Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Social Construction of Scientific Sausage

[updated below]

Bruno Latour is a sociologist of science best known for his insistence that scientific facts are constructed rather than discovered. He's widely reviled by scientists and critics of postmodernity; I rather like his work myself and feel that it's usually misinterpreted. Anyway, my guess is he's laughing his Gallic ass off right now at the so-called Climategate affair, which seems like a perfect test case for his point of view.

Thanks to the acts of some hackers, we got to see some politicized science construction in action. The scientific consensus around climate change is revealed to be the result of an ongoing human process, involving a variety of academic politics and a few somewhat shady-sounding practices, including:
  • applying pressure to journals to keep conflicting articles out of press
  • instructing people to delete emails, possibly in violation of the law
  • applying fudge factors to data to make it conform to theory
It appears that at least in this case the making of science is like the making of laws or sausage: not for the squeamish. The import of any of this stuff is up for contention. Is it improper? Unusual, or just normal behind-the-scenes stuff? Does it imply anything at all about the physical facts of the matter? After a couple of hours of scanning the web and looking at some of the email and code that was stolen, I don't know. I have a couple of insights which I may post about later; for now I'm just interested in the sociology.

One thing is clear -- it's pretty clear that even a relatively science-literate layperson can't hope to have a reasonable opinion on this stuff which relies only on raw data and not its suspect interpretations. I suppose if I spent 2-3 months on this stuff I might understand it well enough to be useful, but without that much time to spend I am stuck relying on the judgement of others. And given that, my most important decision is deciding which others to trust. There have been some self-proclaimed experts diving into the material and proclaiming fraud; my impression is that while there is some suspicious stuff there it is impossible to tell exactly what they mean at this stage.

It's somewhat amazing to me how closely the opinions on AGW line up with people's political sensibilities, considering that this is presumably over a physical question which has a matter-of-fact answer (unlike, say, the definition of "conservatism"). But the climate of the past is something that cannot be measured directly, so there is plenty of room for variant interpretation (I suppose a proper sociologist of science would say that nothing is "measured directly"). Almost all the global warming sceptics I come across are also libertarians or right-wing cranks of one stripe or another, who have a vested ideological interest in the denial that there is a vast collective action problem to be solved. And of course, the scientists who support AGW have a vested interest in climate being a significant social problem because it affects their funding. There seems to be no light between the politics and the science, which of course is one of Latour's points.

There have been calls as a result of this for greater openness and transparency in the process of science. The Open Notebook Science movement is already on this. At first glance this seems like a great idea, but I'm somewhat sceptical about the workability, because science is no different than any other field in being a staged performance requiring a backstage zone where the performers can work on the non-public parts of the show (that's a link to Erwin Goffman, another favorite sociologist).

So, channeling my inelegant, Americanized version of Bruno Latour again: here's a situation where there is presumably a physical matter of fact (the actual state of the earth's climate in the past, and the various proxy measurements like tree-rings that we hope reflect it). There are scientists, journals, computer programs, datasets, and funding agencies which are all being deployed to construct competing theories. Only one gets to win, and the battle is enjoined on many levels with little regard for the supposedly neutral gentlemanly rules of combat that the Whig version of science history gives us. That's what the social construction of science is, only now it will occasionally get spread out all over the Internet for all to see. The rubes are shocked; scientists and sociologists are not.


Full 61M of released materials.

A bunch of podcasts with a variety of philosophers of science.

Mapping Controversies on Science for Politics is a really interesting-sounding project by a bunch of European labs (including Latour's) to do just what it says.

[[update: I called Latour's attitude fairly accurately:
What I found so ironic in the hysterical reactions of scientists and the press was the almost complete agreement of opponents and proponents of the anthropogenic origin of climate change. They all seem to share the same idealistic view of Science (capital S): "If it slowly composed, it cannot be true" said the skeptics; "If we reveal how it is composed, said the proponents, it will be discussed, thus disputable, thus it cannot be true either!". After about thirty years of work in science studies, it is more than embarrassing to see that scientists had no better epistemology to rebut their adversaries. They kept using the old opposition between what is constructed and what is not constructed, instead of the slight but crucial difference between what is well and what is badly constructed (or composed).
from An attempt at writing a "œCompositionist Manifesto" (pdf) ]]


TGGP said...

Views on global warming do match up pretty well with political position, but a number of righty thinkers believe in it, but I can't say the reverse for the left. To me evidence that there's something to it (just as liberal economists agree with the right on a number of issues but righties pretty much never endorse the minimum wage).

Jean-Claude Bradley said...

This reminds me of a post I wrote a while back about "making the scientific sausage" - along with a picture to illustrate it is not pretty :)

Portable Storage said...

Thanks for the information and I agree with Jean-Claude even i have read his article before this article.

Portable Storage,