Climate change is an endlessly useful example for examining issues of public science, and it was Jasanoff’s preferred case study in her talk that I discussed in my previous post. As I noted there, the notion of a constitution is an important aspect of Jasanoff’s views on public science, according to which the rights and responsibilities of expert institutions – in particular their accountability to the publics they serve – are clearly outlined. One of the broad problems Jasanoff identified in the public aspect of climate change is that scientific institutions, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (arguably the most important of all institutions regarding climate change – the largest in any case), do not have explicit standards of accountability.
Jasanoff implies that the IPCC is like what she calls the “fifth branch” of government in a US context – scientific advisement agencies that serve regulatory agencies such as the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration in the United States – these agencies constitute the unofficial “fourth branch” of government. However, I find this example peculiar. Certainly the IPCC is not a regulatory agency, nor does it serve a regulatory agency. It is an institution that attempts to bring about in as comprehensive as possible a manner the totality of current scientific knowledge about climate change (or at least this is an idealized version of its mandate). It has no legal jurisdiction, it can enact no policies, and nor is it a branch of any body that can do so (since the UN cannot pass any binding resolutions without the approval of constituent member states).
Whether you buy her “fifth branch” metaphor or not, her broader argument is that constitutions are needed to curb the unaccountable power and authority of scientific institutions. But, arguably, the problem is that the IPCC has too little power, not too much. And more generally speaking, it is possible that climate scientists have too little power, not too much. Of course, the other side of a constitutional framework is that it would also outlines the rights of scientific institutions. But what rights does the IPCC have? Jasanoff focuses primarily on the responsibilities of scientific institutions to the public. But what about the responsibilities of the public?
STS scholars have long called for a more polyphonous discourse on technoscientific issues, claiming that scientists and scientific institutions dominate debate and decision making. In my own studies on climate change in the Canadian media, I find that scientists can hardly be said to be the dominant authorities or spokespeople on climate change. They are vastly outnumbered by other actors: politicians, economists, pundits, lobbyists, industry spokespeople, environmentalists, activists, the general public and so on. Arguably, our current situation with climate change is what a more democratic science looks like. Is this what STS scholars had in mind?
Perhaps not; so let’s look more fairly at what they do have in mind. There are certainly many case studies in which public knowledge was superseded by expert knowledge, when retrospectively had the experts been more sensitive to local or public knowledge and concerns, the needs of the public would have been better met (or the public might have even avoided harm). A classic example is a case study by Brian Wynne on the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on sheep in Cumbria in Northern England. Via rain systems, radioactive caesium found its way into ecosystems in Cumbria, which in turn ended up in sheep via grazing. Governmental restrictions were placed on the selling of these sheep. Despite assurances that the radioactive levels of the sheep would quickly subside, they persisted, resulting in financial hardships for sheep farmers who were unable to bring their livestock to market. One notable issue was that the regulatory scientists disregarded the farmers’ knowledge about sheep grazing habits, which in turn lead to problematic methods in trying to determine a control group for measuring the effects of the radiation. As the scientists’ continued assurances that radiation levels would soon subside we shown to be incorrect, a crisis of trust emerged, in which the farmers saw the scientists as arrogant, over-certain, and unforthcoming about the inherent uncertainty involved in their research. Wynne’s case study can easily be interpreted in such a way that seems to demonstrate a constructivist attitude about science among the public.
Jasanoff supposes the case of climate change is similar to this example. That is, there is a crisis of public trust, and it stems from scientists covering up uncertainty, over-stepping their authority, and perhaps neglecting the knowledge and concerns of the public. She offered the example of “climategate” and the “errors” made in the last IPCC report as causes of public scepticism. Before considering this contention, I would contend that the reasons for public scepticism about climate change are complex. I grow more and more doubtful that lack of public trust in scientists is one of the major contributing factors that leads to inaction on climate change. Jasanoff mused how people could seemingly trust the consensus of food critics on a matter as inherently subjective as “the best restaurant in the world”, yet not trust the consensus of thousands of qualified climate scientists. One of the reasons she gives is that the former doesn’t matter while the latter, if taken seriously and enforced, demands lifestyle-changing public action (or limitations on public action). This is possibly the chief reason that nothing gets done about climate change. Not to mention the massively funded propaganda campaigns, the disproportionate amount of industry power (if we want to talk about unconstitutional power, I mean, c’mon!) as compared to the power of bodies like the IPCC, deeply held ideologies of progress and technological optimism, and so on.
In any case, even if we do accept that there is a crisis of public trust with regards to climate change, it does not primarily stem from some relativistic principle of constructivism – the view that all science is socially constructed and thus none can meet the standards of “true” scientific knowledge. To the extent that the public acknowledges the constructedness of knowledge about climate change, it is in wholly asymmetrical ways. The “climategate” episode does not demonstrate that the public is reflexive about the inevitably constructed nature of science. Indeed, if it did, it wouldn’t have ended up being such a big deal, since it would have been unsurprising. The leaked CRU e-mails only became “climategate” precisely because the public (and loud voices in the media) expects science not to be constructed. Thus, while it is the case that the public loosely expect some constitutional guarantees from experts, they do not seem to be what Jasanoff has in mind. The public is willing to accept the authority of science insofar as it lives up to the ideals of objectivity, transparency, precision, and “facts” – all of the things that STS scholars find philosophically distasteful.
I once heard Wynne talk at a conference, and a question concerning the ways STS scholars could be engaged with regards to public science was raised. Wynne responded by saying that STS scholars should do two things. First, identify the case studies similar to his about Cumbrian sheep farmers – where the public’s knowledge and concerns are being disregarded in the face of scientific authority. And second, come to the aid of such disenfranchised groups by providing resources that STS scholars have to offer. While Wynne insisted that the concerns of the public were paramount, in that it was up to them to undertake political action however they saw fit, and up to them to identify the concerns, I found his position questionable, as it seemed to be not genuinely democratic.
STS scholars like Jasanoff and Wynne seem to encourage a more “democratic” vision of a expert governance insofar as the interests of the public can be aligned to their own theoretical perspectives. But otherwise, they are faced with a seemingly paradoxical situation. Do they only align themselves with the public concerns that resonate with their own political beliefs and motivations? What about the public concerns about science that rest precisely on the narratives that STS scholars have sought to expose as problematic? Are they then forced to enter the arena of public debate and explain to the public why their desires for more “objective,” more “fact-based” science are ill-conceived? In what sense can STS scholars be said to promote a more democratic approach to expert knowledge when the supposed public concerns and knowledge that they champion need to be inflected by another form of expert knowledge, that is, STS knowledge? Will we do any better at gaining the public’s trust?