Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Two Cultures

The values of science, such as critical thinking, apply to its practice and not to moral obligation, or human virtue but the same should not, and mostly is not true about scientists. Science is a product of our civilization and reflects its values through practitioners, but also science in the last 300 years has shaped the values of people. 

Science may speak to the effects of our actions, natural variation, chance occurrence, but by itself it does not assign value to the well being of people, family or nations. To slip back into character, bunnies are an entirely different matter. 

On the other hand, science does inform scientists when urgent action is necessary if damage is to be limited or the world or some part of it is to prosper and it would be remiss of them not to show these conclusions to others so that our world can at least have a chance to avoid the whirlwind or reap the cornucopia as the case may be.



Climate change is such an issue.  As the AGU statement on climate change says: Human-induced climate change requires urgent action.   That is a statement which brings together ethical obligation of scientists with their science.  It is on the border where the two cultures of science meet.

The first culture is the delight in discovery, the pursuit of knowledge for the pleasure of itself, the ivory tower.  This is the place where science, as a hobby of the well off started but increasingly the cleverest amongst us adopted that stance.  Here's to pure mathematics, may it never be of any use to anyone.  It is primarily this culture that opposes scientists acting as advocates of any action, but still, there is a tradition here of the "wise old heads" functioning as advisers to government and industry.  Physicists are particularly prominent in this camp.  In the case of climate, one sometimes gets the feeling that the objections of a William Happer, for example, are more defending turf than anything else

The second culture is science as the engine of an improved civilization, engineering some sneer, but not the solely practical engineering that only cares if something works but not why.  People in this camp in principle, because they want their science to serve societal needs see no problem of advocating policies. 


It is a misleading illusion to think that scientists have never, or ethically are restricted in any way from giving advice on policy.  The "honest broker not" argument is simply a strategy by some, Eli will not name them, to wall off those with a clue.  Eli asks why omerta only for scientists?

6 comments:

Arthur said...

Once again I am reminded of Ibsen's "An enemy of the people". Is it a moral obligation for the scientist to reveal his alarming discovery? Dr. Stockman is Jim Hansen, Michael Mann and every other climate scientist who has been assaulted by "the people" whose financial interests are at stake. Making or keeping friends has to be secondary to ensuring the truth is heard and doing all you can to get it acted upon.

Anonymous said...

There's no science police, scientists can speak out on any topic they want, and where agw is concerned in particular, jesus christ, if not climatologists, then who???

Anonymous said...

Eli asks why omerta only for scientists?

Exactly.

Reading the previous thread I was pondering on why is it that conservative politicians, anachronistic aristocracy, non-degreed TV weathermen, laissez-faire economists and a swarming horde of unqualified Joes Public all seem to be permitted to comment on the science when it's not their domain, but scientists are not allowed to inform the non-scientific sector about the actual import of their work.

Of course, when those same conservative politicians, anachronistic aristocracy, non-degreed TV weathermen, laissez-faire economists and a swarming horde of unqualified Joes Public have skin in the game and all want the opinion of an expert scientific witness in court, it's a different matter... Then it's scientific advice with cherries on top for all.

Not to worry though. Sooner or not-so-later everyone's skin will be in the game - black, white and brindle - and then they'll be begging those same scientists to explain all they know.

BJ.

badger badger badger said...

Or, more piquantly, why only climate scientists?

Nobody expects the same from say public health or medicine in general. There are grumblings about conflict of interest, but calls for omerta come largely from cranks, not people who actually get listened to.

Anonymous said...

"Human-induced climate change requires urgent action."

Now, let's go get some lunch.

Russell Seitz said...

' "Human-induced climate change requires urgent action."

Now, let's go get some lunch.'


With total warming, anthropogenic and not so much, storming along at almost i microkelvin an hour, we may find time for an urgent siesta, and an existentially threatening swim before cocktails.

It is a misleading illusion to think that scientists never get bored with the climate wars, or are ethically restricted from considering the risk of
their still being around in September.