long . lines and ripples

Scientific Publics, Part II

The last post was inspired by an observation about the unusually mutual relationship between birding science and birding enthusiasts. Ornithology research is accessible (enough) and generates non-negligible interest from the birding community, and birders happily spend their time contributing structured data that is useful to science. This I called a happy “partnership,” which I contrasted to the more distant role that fishery scientists and astronomers have with their own publics.

One reason for this may relate to the kind of public each scientific community contends with. When a public is small, similar in interests, and motivated to acquire an expertise parallel to the scientists (as birders are), they become much more tractable for scientific authority. The expertise of the birder is different than that of the scientist, but still impressive and hard to acquire. Birding cultivates a naturalist ethic of appreciation that demands careful, systematic study and observation on the part of the amateur. Scientists therefore meet birders as a group that wants to know in its own way (as “naturalists”). But naturalist appreciation still has use for scientific expertise. Their methods are not the same, but the result of their inquiries are each of interest to the other.

The hanging “so what” question of the last post was about the relationship between science and the public on a more pressing question: climate change. If a hobby like birding cultivates a constructive scientific public, the problem with the climate change question is that the public is everyone, which means they necessarily have conflicting interests and motivations. There is no particular model of the public to which climate scientists can appeal. People in developing countries, island nations, and in advanced post-industrial economies are different publics, with different immediate interests at play.1

Perhaps science is more successful at relating to the public when it can break off a smaller section of it. The goals are clearer, and it has a better sense of who it is dealing with. There may never be a grand consensus between the scientific community and the public on the issue of climate change. What we may see instead are small victories, when a subset of applied scientists work with a specific community on a problem that they have both identified. Many states in the southern U.S. that have conservative governments and populations, which would otherwise not acknowledge something called “climate change,” have started to make more expansive plans to deal with the effects of climate change–even if they are not willing to use the controversial term itself. So a move toward greater cooperation is possible. It just looks more like an acceptance of changing conditions on the ground, instead of cooperation with scientific authorities.

This is not to say that grand bargains between science and (a section of) the public are not possible. Examples include the willingness to cede control over the beginning and end of life to medical intervention.2 Then there are the large numbers of people that have assented to control over the functions of everyday life by technocratic experts, who run the economy like a scientific object.3

But once scientific knowledge and authority becomes institutionalized in technology, the question of public assent is moot. The public becomes a mass of “users” or “consumers” rather than a partnership.

Maybe this type of forced assent–understood as institutional force and technological inertia–is something for climate science to aspire to. No one asked most of us whether we wanted to live under the authority of the medical industry, or the petroleum-extraction industry, or the tech companies. In many cases it happened before we were born. And maybe this is the best hope for climate science, too: acceptance with an asterisk; not the old-school model of democratic deliberation and consent, but change through institutional entrenchment, inertia, and “you have no choice.”

  1. This raises another problem with the core message of a lot of activism and scientific alarm-ringing about climate change: that “we are all in it together,” and that the collapse of the earth’s ecosystems is everyone’s problem. In the long run, yes, but the next several hundred years are the longest span of time in which most people can relate their own actions to those of the future–and even this period will still see unequal geographic distribution of climate change effects.[]
  2. For example, birth in hospitals, vaccines and the certification of health for young children, and the acceptance that most people in North America will die under medical supervision of some kind.[]
  3. I mean here that “the world” is now a “world economy” that operates according to regular–if not scientific–principles (e.g., supply and demand), administered by economists and public policy experts to encourage the growth of productive capacity.[]