MORE ANNALS OF SOCIAL SCIENCE


Franziska Hollender, a social scientist from Vienna, has taken on the climate change blogosphere, particularly that part of it that demands time-honored scientific methodology and standards of proof based on actual evidence.  In other words, she targets the skeptics – in this particular case Anthony Watts‘ well-known WattsUpWithThat blog – who are so often smeared with the “denier” label.  Apparently a convert to the post-normal form of science, Frau Hollender concludes the following about the troublesome blog-ridden critics of the purveyors of Higher Truth of Climate Change:

Finally, it is concluded that the climate change discourse has been stifled by the obsession of discussing the science basis and that in order to advance the discourse, there needs to be a change in how science as an ideology is communicated and enacted.

So, Frau Hollender, who will be lecturing on this very subject in Colorado on 9/11, thinks people are “obsessed” with the scientific basis of climate science, and they ought to knock it off.  Instead, people should adopt the new, postmodern (or, if you will, post-normal) definition of science as a “narrative stream” in which ideologically immaculate conceptions and stated good intentions trump critical thinking and careful, empirical procedures.  The “subtext” here is that, to “advance the discourse,” one must avoid critical analysis of ideologically motivated people’s methodologies and conclusions and get on the bandwagon.

But there is too much evidence (there is that ugly word again!) that this approach does not work.  The thing called post-normal science has been tried before whenever intentions were considered to be sufficiently “noble” and scientists were amoral enough to fall for ideological nonsense and cozy up to favor-dispensing politicians.  But problems inevitably arise, to wit:

•    Comrade Olga Lepeshinskaya proclaimed loudly that the “bourgeois Virchowian” concept of cell development (i.e. only a living cell can produce another cell) is obsolete.  Her “dialectical-materialistic theory on the origin of all living cells from non-living matter” became the norm.  But no matter how many times she speechified and no matter how many times her opponents were denounced and dethroned, she remained wrong and the “bourgeois Virchowian” scientists remained right.  A chicken will not regrow a severed leg when its stump is thrust into a mass of protein.  Lepeshinskaya’s “dialectic-materialistic theory” is and was a figment of a post-normal ideologist-scientist’s imagination; and many legitimate scientists had paid for it with their careers and, in some cases, imprisonment.

•    Comrade Trofim Lysenko proclaimed loudly that “that priest,” Gregor Mendel, was wrong and his ideas on genetics obsolete.  Lysenko’s own Lamarckian notions on genetics were the new higher truth.  But no matter how many times Lysenko shouted from Soviet pulpits, Mendel remained stubbornly right and Lysenko remained wrong.  Moreover, Lysenko’s fantastic “agrobiology” notions were not the answer to plentiful agricultural production but instead led to disaster.  Both of Lysenko’s notions proved to be figments of a post-normal ideologist-scientist’s imagination, and his victims numbered in the millions.

These are just two of many instances in which post-normal science had been trumped by the pedestrian “bourgeois science,” but not until genuine science disciplines had been set back decades and, in some cases, millions had suffered greatly.  One could cite other post-normal scientific “achievements” like intelligent design, Mao’s Great Flop Forward or Pol Pot’s emptying of the cities to purify the nation, but this is not intended to be a catalogue.  The point is that whenever ideological considerations trump open research and empirical knowledge, criticism must be stifled so the fragile ideology and thin-skinned scientist-ideologists’ egos can survive.  Once the fawning scientists’ egos are safe, then they are at last free to implement the guiding ideologists’ plans, and the stage is set for disaster.

Indeed, we may be watching the very same scenario unfold before our very eyes, and I suspect that Frau Hollender  approves.  Consensus climate science gains absolute sway, critics (mainly the free-thinkers in the blogosphere) are silenced, climate ideologists’ and scientist-ideologists’ plans are uncritically implemented.  Then the great suffering begins – and is conveniently blamed on The Other.

What this finally means is that the ideologist-scientists are the true deniers – deniers of reality.

For this there is no excuse, and never has been.

And so I say: let us continue being obsessed with “mere science,” even though progressive ideologists and their pet scientists – the real deniers – view it as drearily pedestrian and bourgeois.

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About Michael J. Kubat

I'm a grumpy Czech-born clinical social worker who is vitally interested in the survival in the United States as a viable democracy and a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.
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4 Responses to MORE ANNALS OF SOCIAL SCIENCE

  1. Here’s my take on what went on at that seminar:

    Thirteen people, including Franziska Hollender (Google +: https://plus.google.com/116446784794396843390/posts), attended a seminar on September 11, 2012 at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research on the Boulder campus of the University of Colorado.

    Ms. Hollender recently completed her M.A. studies at the University of Vienna and is planning to pursue a PhD next spring. Her presentation centered around her M.A. thesis, which examined seven blog posts over six consecutive years by Anthony Watts on his blog, Watts Up With That.

    Bobby, the woman who introduced Ms. Hollender as “Fran”, told us that Fran was taking an academic look at blogging, something few others have attempted. Bobby then asked Fran if she would take questions during her presentation, but Fran preferred to take questions at the end of her talk.

    Fran started by talking about a “mediated society” that calls into question the integrity of science. One of the new media is the weblog, or blog. She noted that she also has a free blog about cooking, and mentioned that few blogs make money. She talked for some time about seven posts by Anthony Watts on WUWT. The comments on these seven posts had two notable functions: 1. Verification of the results in the posts; 2. Extended peer review. Comments on the September 1, 2012 post announcing her seminar also had these two functions.

    In her thesis, Fran analyzed Anthony’s posts using critical discourse analysis in the manner of Fairclough and Wodak. She was especially interested in analyzing the power structures that were evident in the seven posts and their comment sections.

    Fran’s analysis showed three major ideas that ran through all the posts:

    1. Normal (Kuhnian) science is the good above all else.
    2. Climate scientists are not following the scientific method and are not honoring the people who pay their bills and wages.
    3. Post normal science (the science that comes *AFTER* normal, Kuhnian science, according to Ravetz and Funtowitcz) is anti-scientific.

    Fran said very little more about Anthony’s seven posts. Instead she began her discussion of the 476 comments that followed Anthony’s posting of the announcement of the seminar she was now conducting.

    First, she pointed out that Anthony’s policy to cull post comments of ridicule, personal attacks, and name calling was inconsistently enforced.

    She said that this policy was clearly not being being carried out for the posts commenting on the WUWT announcement of her seminar – or any other comments that use tthe terms “warmist,” “alarmist,” “warmista,” or “global warming fanatic,” for example.

    Next, she took umbrage at being called a “dipshit.

    She objected to the terms “warmist” and “alarmist” but noted that the term “believer”, which Simon Kuper used in an article at the Financial Times, is not an accurate description of “people who are of the opinion that climate change is at least in part anthropogenic and worthy of public action” but is at a loss herself for a good one-word term.

    She then discussed the authority and trustworthiness of science, asking, “Has science ever been normal?” Her answer was that it has never been normal. Scientists cannot be totally objective. They always have motives other than the mere search for knowledge and truth.

    She observed that most of the people who posted comments to the WUWT announcement missed the point of her “Science AS ideology” (my emphasis) comment.

    Because data collection is never unbiased, Fran was reluctant to fault scientists who interpret their data in a biased way. She emphasized that observational bias is unavoidable.

    She noted that even blogs have biases due to gatekeeping. Nobody sees the comments that have been snipped by moderators, so there is no objective way to determine if they were snipped deservedly. Fran pointed out that in all her studies of WUWT, few dissenting comments remained after moderation.

    For example, there was a guest post on WUWT by Jerome Ravetz, in which he attempted to explain Post normal science and its enactment in the blogosphere. Fran felt that the response to Ravetz was almost entirely personal attack, and unfair personal attack at that, since clearly few of the attackers even understood what Ravetz was getting at.

    Fran summed up her appreciation of WUWT and other blogs by saying that they are “Not that free. Not everyone is welcome.”

    However, she emphasized that high interactivity on blogs is a plus: there are about 250 comments on each post on WUWT. The interactivity and lack of moderation mean that derogatory comments like “Offer her another Zoloft and put her by the window, she’ll enjoy the bright colours in the sunlight,” were “speech acts” that should be held accountable for their impoliteness and aggression.

    “Holding science accountable is important.” People who comment on blogs that claim to be scientific should be held accountable for the aggressive speech acts that they have committed, according to Fran.

    Then she noted that the vast majority of the comments that were appended to the seminar announcement descended into a discussion of Post normal science.

    Fran’s appreciation of Post normal science is that it is a description of what happens after the science is done. It is not a prescription, but is a description of what people do after they understand what the normal science means in the real world. There are large issues at stake. What must we do with the knowledge we gain from science?

    Thus, in Fran’s thinking Post normal science isn’t a different kind of science at all. It is the actions and words that occur *after* science is done with its objective data and replicated experiments – thus, POST (after) normal science.

    Fran believes that, “blogs are underrated as media and need to be taken more seriously.” Blogs are good at noting that the role of science in society is a matter of ideology. Blogs are also good at extended peer review of the results of scientific inquiry. However, blog commentary as constructive discourse is impeded by personal attacks and ridicule, something she herself experienced in the comments to Anthony’s seminar announcement on WUWT.

    Fran suggested that if blogs were willing to take out the arguing and attacks, they would become acceptable as academic and scientific discourse. She ended her presentation with the Heisenbergian statement that, “Observing a system changes the system.”

    Then Fran opened the floor for questions.

    One questioner mentioned that “open source” journals might be one solution to the problem of scientific peer review. Fran replied that unfortunately, scientific journals are usually put on paper, which costs money, and thus they will mostly remain read only within the scientific community, while blogs are open and are much better way to reach a wider public. Also, even though there are free journals, they are not very well promoted and thus reach fewer people from outside a discipline.

    I asked Fran whether she could articulate the great divide, the thesis and antithesis of climate change.

    She said that she was confused, and could not take a side. Her conviction is that humans do contribute to climate change and that it was worth it to make lifestyle changes like paying more for energy and recycling. She also mentioned that she believes in some version of the precautionary principle: we should do something if the stakes are so high that the entire planet might be affected. She said she would rather act sooner about such a situation rather than later. She added that her approach is very European. Europeans have a “give and get” tradition where they are willing to give more in taxes in order to get less poverty and environmental degradation.

    Another questioner asked Fran about roles that commenters take on blogs, specifically the roles of policing the comments or the role of commenting productively. Fran noted that most people stick to some particular role, usually noting that they are stepping out of that role in a particular comment by saying something like, “I normally don’t do this, but now I will comment.” Unfortunately, the policing role generally degenerates into nothing but vicious comments, something that is “unproductive.”

    Fran noted that she had to refrain from commenting on Anthony’s post about her seminar. “I wouldn’t be able to stop if I started commenting,” was the reason she gave for not participating in the commentary. Plus, the fact that doing so would have changed the object under study.

    Another questioner asked if blogs could influence normal science. Fran noted that many of the guest posts on WUWT were by knowledgeable people, but people not usually publishable in normal peer reviewed journals. This might have some influence on normal science. However, some posts on WUWT were definitely not suitable for peer reviewed journals, most notably Anthony’s posts regarding Pachauri’s novel writings, an activity that has nothing to do whatsoever with Pachauri’s science or his believability as the head of the IPCC, at least in Fran’s opinion.

    Thus, says Fran, “Ideas that don’t pass rigid scientific peer review get air.”

    Another questioner mentioned Judy Curry’s blog and how it engages both believers and contrarians. Fran noted that Anthony has said that Judy Curry used to be a contrarian, but has “fallen off the bandwagon and retreated to warmist views.”

    Fran noted that Jerome Ravetz had a guest post on WUWT, but the 500 comments on that post were almost uniformly “all bad.”

    Fran said that she has “yet to find a blog where constructive discourse happens” when clashing views are encouraged.

    Another questioner asked whether blogs could be the new “agora” in the Greek philosophical sense. Fran found the comment interesting.

    Fran wrapped up the questioning by noting that there is still a lack of constructive discourse in the blogosphere. Among contrarians, the role of humans in climate change is still discussed, while among those who are believers, they are “not concerned about whether climate change is happening.” Believers are only concerned about what to do about it.

    Bobby thanked all the participants for coming, and most everybody but a few contrarians left for classes or other activities. To the remaining few, Fran opined that she ultimately preferred the European lifestyle to that of America, but appreciates the possibilities and chances in America, having lived in different states and cities herself. She was appalled at the poverty she saw in big parts of the country and was flabbergasted that Americans could allow such blatant inhumanity to stand. She also noted that even with the higher taxes and lack of economic freedom in Europe, the lifestyle there has not changed for the worse.

  2. Pingback: OBSESSION, AGAIN | Cognitive Dissonance

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