by Judith Curry
In a speech before the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, said:
So what is it that is new today? What is new is that doubt has been eliminated. The report of the International Panel on Climate Change is clear. And so is the Stern report. It is irresponsible, reckless and deeply immoral to question the seriousness of the situation. The time for diagnosis is over. Now it is time to act (Brundtland 2007).
This chapter is not easy to summarize with excerpts, but I will attempt to do so for those that don’t want to read the entire chapter (it isn’t too long, about 4000 words). Some excerpts (bold, except for section headings, is my emphasis):
Elimination of doubt and the ethos of science
“Doubt has been eliminated,” according to Brundtland’s statement, and the reason for this was that the “report of the International Panel on Climate Change” (AR4, the Fourth Assessment reports of IPCC) and “the Stern report” (the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change) were “clear”. In other words, these publications were seen (by Brundtland) as carrying sufficient authority to be able to eliminate doubt in the competent and rational reader. It also seems obvious that their authority is based on their scientific character and credibility.
The problem, however, is that most contemporary philosophies of science would tend to grant continued discussion, open criticism and methodical doubt a central place among their ideals for scientific practice. Indeed, in the very center of twentieth-century expressions of belief in Enlightenment and Progress, thinkers such as Karl Popper and Robert K. Merton argued that a critical mind-set and the organization of skepticism are essential to Science and necessary for the maintenance of open and democratic societies.
Unsurprisingly, Brundtland was indeed accused of anti-scientific attitudes in her embrace of IPCC and the Stern report; accused in a quite literal sense. In a great moment of late modern irony, the Norwegian Research Ethics Committee for Science and Technology (NENT) received a complaint in November 2009 about Brundtland’s speech, arguing that it violated basic principles of research ethics: academic freedom, anti-dogmatism, organized skepticism.
In plain terms: her utterance violated the norms of the Ethos of Science. It would be a serious underestimation of actors at Brundtland’s level, however, to think that her speech was a careless mistake or a result of ignorance. Of course she knew that it is “more scientific” to qualify statements; to appreciate the plurality of perspectives and expert opinions; to show awareness of the essential fallibility of scientific facts, theories and advice. Her task was a different one than being scientific: it was to argue for the supreme authority of science in order to combat doubts about the authority of the advice from IPCC and the Stern report.
The unscientific belief in science
Justification of a comprehensive doctrine from within that doctrine can be anything from quite difficult to completely trivial. For instance, doctrines that postulate their own origin in revelations made by an omniscient, loving and truthful deity can have strong self-justificatory features. Of course we should believe God’s words if they tell us that he is always right. Proponents of doctrines about the proper role and authority of science can choose a number of justificatory strategies. Sometimes, justificatory resources can be found within the perspective itself, as in the intriguing debate on the evidence for the utility of evidence-based practice in medicine. At other times, it has been found convenient to emphasize that justification in the last resort resides outside the perspective, as when Karl Popper points out the need to decide upon the role of rationality and the choice of critical rationalism. Critical rationalism is not consistent with claiming the necessity of its acceptance, if we are to believe Popper.
This is a relevant observation when discussing Brundtland’s speech. There can be a scientific belief in Science – but if Science is defined epistemologically as fallible and praxeologically as an activity that embodies norms of doubt and self-criticism, the belief in Science cannot be too dogmatic and too hostile towards criticism raised against it without becoming unscientific. This problem is indeed what one may observe in the Brundtland quote. It claims not only that “doubt is eliminated” in this case but also that to raise further critical questions is immoral. It is very difficult not to see this as expressly unscientific and even at odds with the norms of the institution from which she borrows authority.
There is little reason to fear that climate scientists will become dogmatic just because Gro Harlem Brundtland made an unscientific claim about climate science. The interesting question is rather: if Science is not the source of authority for this type of belief in Science, what exactly is the source – as seen from within this type of perspective? Mere trust in IPCC and Stern and his team, however brilliant they may be, appears insufficient for such strong claims. If I am allowed to speculate, I would think that many observers would find it hard to trust such a complex and worldly endeavor as the IPCC qua institution to the degree that it eliminates doubt. Bearing in mind Brundtland’s experience as former Head of Government and former Director General of WHO, it becomes even more counter-intuitive to imagine that she holds naïve beliefs about big international institutions. On this ground, “Doubt has been eliminated” appears less as an expression of reasoned trust in the worldly IPCC and more as an expression of faith in Science. What kind of phenomenon is that faith?
Livssyn – life philosophies
There is an abundance of potentially useful concepts for the problems I am discussing here. Comprehensive doctrine is one example. Ideology, metaphysical position and worldview are others. For instance, we could have followed in Georges Canguilhem’s path and discussed how scientific concepts are exported and distorted into non-scientific contexts and become scientific ideologies. The point I wish to pursue, however, is not so much one of epistemology or political theory as one of “life philosophy” in Fjelland’s definition. In the following, I shall discuss his analysis, as well as the Norwegian context into which it was introduced.
Fjelland argues that Kant’s four questions of philosophy are the suitable point of departure for defining a life philosophy:
- What can I know?
- What ought I to do?
- For what may I hope?
- What is a human being?
Rather than reproducing Fjelland’s argument, I shall apply his conclusion in the latter part of the chapter: one’s particular answers to the three latter questions form a life philosophy. The answer to the first question – What can I know? – does not form an intrinsic part of the life philosophy, but may be central to its justification.
In this way, the concept of life philosophy is placed on a different level than religion and science. Religion and science may provide answers – inputs – to (or justifications for) the life philosophy, but they are not identical to the life philosophy. Fjelland shows how not only a religion such as Christianity but also a cosmology as found in Ancient Greek philosophy can provide answers to Kant’s questions, and in this way justify particular life philosophies (from within the perspective itself, of course). Next, he argues that belief in science and progress can easily provide other answers to Kant’s questions and in this way produce a science-based life philosophy. “Science- based” is a dangerous term in this respect, however. Within the proper domain of science, the quality of being “science-based” may endow a claim with superior epistemic authority. But Kant’s questions are philosophical and not scientific ones; a categorical mistake happens if one believes that current biological theories can produce the unique and final truth about what is a human being, or if one uncritically embraces the technological imperative and concludes that we ought to develop and implement all technologies that can be delivered by science.
First or second modernity
Can one appropriately talk about life philosophies while discussing climate change? I think so. The issue of climate change cannot be separated from a number of huge questions about our responsibility for future generations, for global equity, for non-human species, and for our choice of lifestyles and therefore our values. I believe Brundtland and the author would agree on this point. In her speech, she was not trying to be a philosopher of science. She wanted to deliver a message about what is important and what we ought to do as societies and individuals.
Brundtland’s speech borrows the answers to Kant’s second and third question – what we ought to do and for what we may hope – from the IPCC and the Stern report. We should reduce emissions, and this can be believed to have a good effect. What a human being is, she in a way answered herself in the Brundtland report “Our Common Future”, which not only states our responsibilities for future generations and across borders, but in that way also defines our roles and identity as intrinsically bound together on Planet Earth. Many would agree with her.
The problem appears with the relevance of Kant’s first question: what can we know? By expressing her unscientific faith in Science, Brundtland undermines the authority of her life philosophy. It remains science-based, but no longer justified and endorsed by Science in its canonical expression. Nor is it supported by religion. The problem is that many 21st century citizens are endowed with critical skills and so little fear for authority that they no longer obey when leaders such as Brundtland say that doubt is eliminated and moreover immoral. Interpreted as an empirical statement, “Doubt has been eliminated” is quite simply false. One falls into ridicule and one’s communication remains ineffective.
NENT (2009) called for a Second Modernity type of approach: to admit that there is uncertainty in the climate models and still argue that this does not justify the lack of action; indeed the uncertainty may be a reason for precautionary action. Brundtland’s problem is that she does not find strong enough power in a discourse of “and”: science is telling us that the climate problem is really urgent AND Science may be wrong. Apparently unable to acknowledge Second Modernity, and no longer able to scare the people into silent obedience, leaders of 21st century democracies are simply left in deadlock.
Can we make constructive suggestions about how to get out of the deadlock? There are many already: epistemological ones (uncertainty and complexity management); political ones (deliberative democracy and a new social contract of science); legal ones (principles of precaution); ethical ones (eco-philosophy etc.). This short chapter shall end with a perhaps somewhat unusual suggestion: to think twice about our concepts of life philosophies. We have seen how even the Norwegian Prime Minister could not avoid quasi-religious concepts such as “belonging” and “guidance” when trying to describe life philosophies. As long as this submissive flavor prevails, secular life philosophies will remain too much a Coca Cola Light. One will be likely to fall into science-based but unscientific dogmatism and then into ridicule. Accordingly, I will end by making the claim for piecemeal, reflexive, self-critical and tentative life philosophies, allowing for the “and” of Beck and for doubts and smiles. A proper argumentation would require another chapter, or indeed a book series; still, let me forward the claim that a life philosophy of Beck’s “and”, fit for Second Modernity, would need to maintain hope in the absence of guarantees from God or from Science, and to see the questions of what we should do and what it is to be a human as deeply entangled and relative to each other.
JC comment: Strand’s chapter provides an interesting perspective that goes beyond the typical science and/or policy debate that we have on the climate issue. I look forward to your discussion of these ideas.
I don’t usually post anything this esoteric on the weekend, but this one landed in my mailbox this morning, and I am otherwise busy with some hurricane posts (stay tuned).