I wrote the paper in the aftermath to Climategate, early in 2010. It took quite some effort to get it published. It was rejected by three journals (Social Studies of Science, Environmental Science & Policy, Sociology) before it was accepted by ST&HV. SSS and ST&HV are the two most important journals in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). In three cases two referees were involved, in one case where there were three. What struck me was that the referees with a negative verdict were much less well informed about the case than those who were favorable. An early positive review provided very detailed comments for improving the quality of the manuscript which were helpful for writing a revised version. However, this did nothing to convince several referees in the subsequent journal submission process.
Overall, the negative reviews were largely dismissive, taking issue with the fact that I was interested in an outdated debate (Merton and his critics), that I took the emails at face value, that I failed to see that norms in science are situational, contingent and constructed. One referee was especially put off by my remark that “scientific credibility has been lost in a short period of time.” The same referee could not see any warrant in the paper for my “breathtakingly sweeping recommendation” which reads as follows: “We have to establish processes that are open, transparent, and robust enough to avoid conflicts of interest to arise in the first place. And this should be the major focus for an institutional redesign of the scientific advisory process on climate change, post CRU scandal.” It is interesting that in the meantime several other publications and independent reviews have come to similar conclusions about lost credibility and institutional reform (and I incorporated the findings of these reviews in a later version of the paper).
One editor responsible for handling my manuscript was apologetic about the negative verdict, pointing out that the topic was too hot to handle for some referees in the field. He thought it was very difficult in the current situation to get such material published. I took this as a strong indication that the politicization of climate change had had an effect in STS scholarship, something which is not thematized sufficiently in the community.
In another case the editor rejected the paper despite the fact that the two reviews seemed to imply a “revise and resubmit” verdict. Both provided detailed comments and suggestions, many of minor importance (including acronym usage, and US/UK spelling), but also a few substantive comments (for example about the problem of data trimming in scientific research and its legitimacy). But they did not state a recommendation.
I was thus surprised by the editor’s decision and asked for the reasons. He replied he had received confidential comments by the referees which were negative on balance. This means that the referees did not dare to spell out what they really thought about the paper, only the editor was provided with this information, secretly. In fact, the reviews do not make the case for rejecting the paper.
What I take away from this experience is that the practice of journal editors soliciting confidential comments is not helpful, to put it mildly. Whenever I am invited to make such comments, I always refuse and point out that such practices should be abandoned. In my view, if a referee thinks a paper needs to be rejected, there is a duty to tell the author the reasons for rejection.
The editor commented my criticism as follows: “The system is not perfect, but if I as editor on a topic that is not necessarily my own domain of specialization do not go along with what the reviewers say, this would set an uncomfortable precedent. I prefer to have an unsatisfied author reacting to reviewers rather than having accusations of a non-objective publication process by the journal's editors.”
Another journal sent me two referee reports, one of which was six lines long, saying that the paper showed no awareness of the sociological problem posed by Climategate and that the scientific process _cannot_ match the idealised models (such as developed by Merton). Again, I find it quite worrying that editors can go along with such a superficial verdict, this time based on a complete lack of engagement with the paper’s content.
The fourth and final attempt was ST&HV where the paper eventually got accepted. I had incorporated several of the sensible suggestions from previous referees, especially the constructive comments in the first round. Nevertheless, the two referees for ST&HV made additional demands for improving the presentation (which is not surprising, someone will always find room for improvement)– but this time both referees were recommending publication. My sense was that they, contrary to most of the previous referees, agreed with the thrust of the analysis.
2. So what lessons are to be learnt from this experience?
My impression is that many STS scholars feel uncomfortable with the topic of climategate. They did not want to contribute to what they perceived to be a negative chorus of sceptical voices. So they largely refrained from investigating this problem and perhaps climate change more generally. Together with Nico Stehr I have published a paper on this very question (“Climate Change: What role for Sociology? A Response to Constance Lever-Tracy, Current Sociology 58(6): 897–910).
Much work has been done in Sociology and STS about numerous controversies, practices, and discourses in science and technology, but climate change received comparatively little attention. Yet it is arguably one of the most important issues in contemporary politics, science and society. So where does this reluctance come from? My hunch is that the dominance of the climate change discourse was too strong for a critical attitude to emerge. It is ironic that a field so deeply rooted in discourse analysis and critical thinking would neglect its professional principles and turn a blind eye to an exciting and important research area. Unfortunately, some sociologists have accepted the official narrative according to which science is the battleground for climate policy. And that one has to make a choice where to stand.
It seems as if some scholars in the field of STS and Sociology see the discussion of Mertonian Sociology of Science and a normative problematization of scientific practices as lying beyond the scope of proper sociological inquiry. By the way, both Merton’s defenders and latter day critics are agreed that during scientific controversies scientists do not follow the ethos of science. This leads to an uncomfortable position with regard to Climategate. Here is why: Mertonians would have little to moan because Climategate was part of a controversy. And their critics would not be able to see anything untoward—scientists are self-interested and try to bend the rules as everyone else in society. But if Climategate is perceived by others (journalists, bloggers, politicians) as problematic, undermining trust in climate science, then what? The answer has been to keep hammering on with the science, hoping that the credibility will restore itself.
At this point I probably ought to explain a principle at the heart of science studies, the methodological rule of studying knowledge claims symmetrically. This means not to assume a priori that one side is right and the other wrong and that we only need to find explanations for the “wrong” position (because the truth will out in the end and is in no need for explanation). Instead, we should analyze both sides (or more sides, if there are more) without committing to one of them on the level of cognitive validity or authority. Rather, the point of the whole analysis is to reconstruct the emergence of a dominant position (sometimes called “truth”) as an end result of scientific practice.
Unfortunately, this “principle of symmetry” was perceived to be too close to a similar principle which was allegedly at work in the mass media of the USA (as Max Boykoff claimed in a famous paper from 2004, “Balance as bias”). If the media in the US used a similar method as the STS community it looked like an embarrassing affinity. I could be wrong but I think some such thought control must have occurred in the early 2000s. Nobody in STS wanted to be seen close to President’s Bush’s repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol. And nobody wanted to be seen as providing fodder for the sceptical mills. I guess some STS practitioners felt a deep sympathy for that line in the CRU emails which said something similar.
3. There were other analyses of Climategate, think of Maybach or Ryghaug – could you summarize your and their positions, and discuss the differences?
I have actually written a review of other approaches which was published in WIREs Climate Change (The legacy of Climategate: revitalizing or undermining climate science and policy, Wiley’s Interdisciplinary Reviews Climate Change). There I commented on Ryghaug and Skjølsvold, coming to an ambivalent evaluation. I praise them for applying STS methods to Climategate, something which had not been done by other STS scholars. But I also criticize them for not going far enough. In the end, they tended to condone the practices of Climategate scientists.4. You got quite some flak by Klimazwiebel discussants bam and Andreas – what do you think their core criticism consists of, and to what extent is this critique warranted?
Maybach et al. was the companion piece in the same WIREs issue and I did not have a chance to see it before publication. Having it read now, I am ambivalent on this piece as well. They rightly emphasize the US political culture which is polarized about climate change. Right wing politicians have chosen to make climate change a top policy issue, disagreeing with the Democrats and President Obama, in the hope to build political capital from it. Opinion poll data (partly provided by one of the authors, Leiserowitz) shows that right-leaning people have strong opinions (rejecting belief in man-made warming), and they have intrumentalized Climategate for their purposes. On the other hand Maybach et al do not look into the Climategate affair as such but emphasize that official investigations have concluded that the science is sound and no malpractice has happened. This is not going to impress people who are more critical. Again, there seems to be an extreme caution to investigate the substance of the allegations made after Climategate.
Unfortunately these critics did not engage with the argument of my papers. They were looking for excuses to dismiss the paper, using mainly the claim that my data base was biased, that I was quoting too heavily sources which were associated with the skeptical blogosphere. In some cases people thought that my analysis would be invalidated if it could be shown that some detail about the evolution of the hockey stick controversy was wrong or wrongly interpreted. The argument put forward in the ST&HV paper is far more complex and nuanced. Still, it raises the important question if one can speak about scientific misconduct. What is interesting is that both defenders of Climategate scientists and their critics agree that ethics are involved in this. This makes them very excited about the whole story. Both accuse each other of deceit, of data misrepresentation, fraud, or worse.
Compare this to the STS professionals and sociologists who rejected my paper and who maintain that ethical standards are not helpful in this case. One referee said “participants would concoct convenient stories to legitimate their activities (and scorn the practices of rivals)”. But to my knowledge this has not been done. Michael Mann in his book Climate Wars and in interviews has provided an account which tries to evoke sympathy but does not defend the incriminated activities. Clearly there are no issues for him. Perhaps I am wrong and Klimazwiebel readers will point me to discussions which I have overlooked.
But my suspicion is that STS scholars, too, believe that ethics is involved here, it is the ethics of not providing fodder for the wrong side. But I could wrong and we shall see how the paper will be received in the social science community.
5. What do you think is the bottom line of “Climategate”- does it represent a strengthening of climate research?
It is too early to tell. On the one hand we got some recommendations from review panels which should help fostering sound institutional rules for the conduct of contested research which enhances transparency and trust. On the other hand, what I call the “old script” still persists. This means that in climate research there are quite a few people active in defending the “official line”, taking a vigorous stance on “the science” and attacking anyone who does not sing from the same hymn sheet. What is worse is that the incriminated scientists have not come forward with clarifications about the disputed details of the controversy. They have appeared in official inquiries but not volunteered much beyond that. Phil Jones was prepared for this when he said in front of the UK Parliamentary hearing “I have written some awful emails…” but this was not taken up as an invitation to pursue the issue further.
Another aspect is that climate research will only be one voice among many in the climate debate and over the past years and decades it has been observed that actors from other parts of society become more visible (business, politics and NGOs). Climate policy is a matter for these social domains, not so much for science.
6. Has Climategate changed communication? Which role did it have for climate policy?
I think Climategate is less known to scholars, decision makers and citizens outside a small circle of climate science and policy aficionados. It always strikes me that people who are knowledgeable about climate change (either as citizens or as part of their professional life) know very little about the climategate affair.
Therefore I interpret your question with regard to climate science in the first instance. I think it has led several people away from the logic of the trenches where only the science argument will win the policy debate. This has become evident with people like Mike Hulme or Judith Curry. However, a group of die-hards persists with the old strategy which includes the constant attack on anything that deviates from the party line. Of course, they have their selected targets (Curry is among them, and the Pielkes, but apparently not Hulme or von Storch).
There are more and more voices (above all in the blogosphere) who embrace the term ‘climate sceptic’. Many of these have an idealized picture of how science works and were appalled by the revelations in the emails. So Climategate has provided a strengthening of this sceptical community. Perhaps this explains the vigor of some of the attacks by the ‘mainstream’, but will of course not change the sceptical mindset in the slightest. On the contrary, it will lead to the opposite effect of what is intended and we may see more scepticism.
Then we have the call for institutional reforms which have been made by the IAC, and the Muir Russell Review, to name but two important reviews. The IAC called for a reform of the management structure of the IPCC, the Muir Russell Review for a more transparent conduct in climate research. If these recommendations will be implemented remains to be seen. But these reforms have signaled to the policy world that not all is well in climate science.
Coming back to your question about policy impact I think there are changes underway. The old script is losing plausibility and we finally have got some fresh air which will help with efforts of experimentation with solutions without moralizing and demonizing.
7. Is Klimazwiebel useful for your work?
I find Klimazwiebel a very helpful communication platform for communicating ideas to a wider public (often with immediate responses). It is also great for experimenting with new ideas and for teasing out details of arguments, both made by myself and other commentators.
I guess the most important aspect is that the makers of the blog are diverse but united in some respect. This is an important ingredient in interdisciplinary work but applies to Klimazwiebel as well. This helps creating a stimulating intellectual environment.
Klimazwiebel is unique in that it develops an editorial ethos which is observed by and large. We do not moderate and do not censor. The rules are clear and participation is open. This is exploited by partisan fighters who come and provoke, often with strong language. Some of them do not show an interest in civil exchange of ideas and thus leave after their outbursts. We have to live with that of course.
Klimazwiebel makes use of the ‘honest broker’ metaphor. This is not unproblematic, as I (and others) often switch to the first person advocate when discussing things. But the blog as such (with all the different perspectives from the main contributors) tries to achieve this ideal of discussing the merit of arguments, the plausibility of solutions, the credibility of actions. Honest brokering should not be misunderstood as always occupying the middle position between two extremes.
I see blogging for Klimazwiebel as privilege and fun. It keeps me on the ball and makes me more attentive to ongoing developments. It helps focusing my writing as well. I think I have become more productive in terms of writing things up for publication. And the increased visibility leads to more requests for conference presentations, reviews, or invited papers.
The Zwiebel smells and makes you cry, it has many layers but no core—and yet it is energizing!
8. How do you link yourself to the understanding of physical climate science? There is a broad trench between your field of social science and natural sciences.
It is true that there is a different approach in the social and physical sciences with regard to climate change. Epistemologically, the physical scientists study the climate system but make observations about society as well. Social scientists either repeat what the physicists have to say or stay calm. They understand that no trespassing is allowed. So what they are limited to is an observation of science, culture, and society, what we social scientists call ‘the discourse’.
But the physical scientists do not respect the NO TRESPASSING sign. They are dominating the debate and many climate scientists think they have the prerogative to make political suggestions which society at large should take up because scientists always know best. And politicians and the media play along. Even some sociologists think we should suspend our critical faculties and leave our constructivist toolbox closed, and just “follow the climate scientists”. This is most unfortunate.
However, when it comes to practical solutions, climate science has little to offer. Social, political and cultural responses to the challenge of climate change are often determined by scientists and engineers who have no special knowledge base when it comes to making suggestions. Instead they theorize their own common sense about how they think society and politics operate. Often they are naive, wrong, or both. But social scientists have been colluding in this game by granting scientists the prerogative of defining the situation and offering solutions. So if one wanted expertise for climate policy, more social science would be needed. Having said that, no amount of expertise will solve the problem of climate change, which is a long term issue and requires public involvement and debate on a much larger scale than witnessed so far.
9. Would you consider yourself a classical leftist? What would a classical leftist think about the political dispute on climate change?
It depends what you mean by “classical leftist”. If you take it to mean the abolition of markets and private property as a solution to all social problems I would not count. I started my academic career with a book on Marxism and Ecology, a work which set out to defend Marx against ecological fundamentalism. Ecological fundamentalism was much more popular in the early 1990s than it is today. At the time I was criticized by some greens as being a dogmatic Marxist--which missed the point of my analysis completely. I developed an interpretation of Marx emphasizing the technological side of society’s exchange with nature, not the property relations (which is the classical Marxist, and perhaps leftist position).
Another element of a classical leftist position is the belief in the merit of more equality, democracy, freedom of speech, the need for environmental policies, public participation, being against power abuse, etc. which I share. I am no believer in de-regulation and neo-liberal solutions to social problems. But I don’t think the old formula of “overthrowing capitalism” as a means to solving social problems is convincing. This terminology is too crude (there are varieties of capitalism) and even a non-capitalist society would be a priori in no better position to prevent negative effects of climate change.
With regard to climate change (and a number of other social problems), welfare states do better than states with a history of privatization and neoliberal reforms. But there are other, more nuanced variables which have to be taken into account, such as the openness of the political system, and the history and culture of a country. One important factor is the element of civil society engagement and its representation at the political level. Political systems with a high degree of openness to such movements tend to be more progressive with regard to the social policy, and also with regard to progressive climate policies. In Germany there is now an elite consensus about the merit of climate protection policies and therefore this cannot be considered to be an item of a leftist agenda.
Classical leftists tend to prefer simple answers, such as state regulation, a ban on specific technologies, and heavy taxation to influence behaviour, etc. In the German political scene the Left Party is still dreaming of a 60% left-wing majority in parliament, and some leftist Social Democrats and Greens dream along. But even such a majority would not mean that we get effective climate policies, not in Germany and not internationally.