by Judith Curry
Two particular subgroups of ACC-questioning mainstream scientists that emerged from my research among atmospheric scientists were two kinds of research meteorologists: the (by definition physics-strong and theoretical) dynamicists and more empirical research meteorologists with past training in synoptic methods and weather prediction. – Myanna Lahsen
An interesting paper was sent to me by Douglas Sheil, which provides some insights into skepticism in the meteorological research community.
Anatomy of Dissent: A Cultural Analysis of Climate Skepticism
Abstract. Based on findings from ethnographic analysis of U.S. climate scientists, this article identifies largely unrecognized sociocultural dimensions underpinning differences in scientists’ perceptions of anthropogenic climate change. It argues that culturally laden tensions among scientists have influenced some to engage with the antienvironmental movement and, as such, influence U.S. climate science politics. The tensions are rooted in broad-based and ongoing changes within U.S. science and society since the 1960s and propelled by specific scientific subgroups’ negative experiences of the rise of environmentalism and of climate modeling, in particular. Attending to these and other experience-based cultural dynamics can help refine cultural theory and enhance understanding of the deeper battles of meaning that propel climate science politics.
Published in American Behavioral Scientist, [link] to abstract. Since this paper is behind paywall, I provide liberal excerpts:
In my typology, “mainstream scientists” are scientists who, by contrast to “contrarian scientists,” work in official scientific institutions, mainly accredited universities and federal research laboratories; obtain research funding from government agencies; and publish primarily, if not exclusively, in scientific, peer-reviewed journals. Also in contrast to the contrarians, “mainstream skeptics” are moderate in their questioning of the science underpinning concern about human-induced climate change. They tend to believe that global climate has warmed and that human action may be one of the causes, but they question aspects of the evidence and are critical of what they perceive as exaggerations of the threat of ACC and of its scientific certainty. Unlike contrarians, they tend not to challenge the evidence for other environmental problems like ozone depletion and acid rain, and they lack extensive material and discursive ties to the vested interests and conservative think tanks that propel the antienvironmental movement. They also lack the strong, explicit aversion to government regulation held by most contrarians. Application of these definitions is admittedly difficult and ambiguous in some instances, as a few atmospheric scientists may show characteristics of more than one of these categories.
Habiti and Transformations in Science
The atmospheric sciences have witnessed an increasing dependence on GCMs along with changing criteria for evaluating what constitutes good and worthwhile science, in line with the emergence of Mode 2 science. Gibbons et al. (1994) use the terms “Mode 1” and “Mode 2” to describe the old and emergent forms of knowledge production that mark science today. They identify knowledge production in the traditional mode in science (Mode 1) as discipline-based, as involving a clear distinction between fundamental and applied science, and as placing greatest value on basic research, the latter being understood as a necessary precursor for applied science and engineering. Pure theory, physics, and mathematics serve as the ideals in this mode, in which searches for first principles and a unitary theory of the world are primary goals.
Mode 2 science is less traditional in its production and evaluation of knowledge. It involves weakening, if not erasure, of long-standing disciplinary boundaries and of common distinctions between fundamental and applied science, including the value system that traditionally has privileged the former. Knowledge in this mode is often produced with clear policy goals in mind, and notions of good science are expanded to include recognition of practical, societal, and policy-related impacts. Actors operating in Mode 2 manifest greater awareness of the broader implications of their work.
JC comment: the Mode 1 and 2 science categorization is further illuminated by this previous post on Pasteur’s quadrant, where I think Mode 1 corresponds to Bohr’s quadrant and Mode 2 corresponds to Pastuer’s and Edison’s quadrants.
Important federal agencies’ funding criteria have shifted increasingly in favor of Mode 2 science since the end of the cold war. In the environmental sciences, the new criteria of evaluation are closely linked to environmental concern as well as societal demands for “socially relevant” science, all of which privileges research on ACC, for which GCMs are an essential tool. This underlies much of modelers’ current success in obtaining funding and broad-based recognition of their scientific products.
In a clear articulation of Mode 2 values in interviews with me, the late Stephen Schneider, proponent of policy-driven, interdisciplinary climate modeling, expressed his lack of interest in “an elegant solution.” He unequivocally defended seeking answers to pressing social problems by any means necessary, including imprecise science:
The other side says “[if you put] garbage in[to the model], garbage [comes] out; if you haven’t got all the details, how can you couple everything together.” And my answer is: [if you don’t and instead wait until more precise data is available for input in the models] by the time you get that, we’ll already know the answer because you just go outside and see what happened. And that is not ethical in my value system.
Core Contrarians: The Physicist Trio
At the discursive level, if not always in their actions (given their extensive efforts to mobilize science in service of commercial and political interests), a physicist elite forming an influential subset of the high-profile contrarian scientists strongly represents Mode 1 values. In the context of climate science, these values are expressed in criticisms of the environmental sciences and, in particular, of climate modeling. The physicist elite that joined under the conservative Washington, D.C.–based think tank the Marshall Institute was led for over a decade by the now-deceased Frederick Seitz, William Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow—scientists who have been extraordinarily active and influential in the climate backlash (Lahsen, 2008; Oreskes & Conway, 2010) and who continue to serve as authorities for skeptical arguments, even after their deaths and even outside of the United States.5 As in the case of still-living colleagues of similar profile, the Marshall Institute physicist trio’s discourses, values, and habiti were formed before the contemporary wave of environmentalism, at a time when communism was perceived as a dominant threat and nuclear physicists enjoyed the highest prestige in the scientific hierarchy.
JC comment: Ironic that political motivations and espousement of Mode 1 research values seem to go together on the ‘conservative’ political side
Defenders of basic science and with a value framework squarely rooted in the postwar decades and the cold war mentality, the trio was at odds with the emerging environmental consciousness and the associated new social movements that gained force during the 1970s. Concomitant with these transformations, their social status and influence declined, as did funding for the lines of science they valued. Meanwhile, climate modeling and other lines of science developed that they considered inferior science. Dismay over these changes informs their backlash engagements, which were acts of resistance to changing tides in science and society and a defense of their understandingsof science, modernity, and of themselves as a physicist elite.
Mainstream Empirical Meteorologists
Until the emergence of numerical approaches, meteorologists were divided into three broad groups: theoreticians, empiricists, and weather forecasters. Skeptically inclined climate critics within the atmospheric sciences tend to come from these three traditional groups and to hold criticisms of the epistemological status of numerical climate modeling and of how modeling results are being used in science and politics. Leaving aside weather forecasters, who were not part of my ethnographic research because I focused on research scientists, scientific critics of climate science and climate models tend to be empiricists (experimentalists, observationalists) and theoreticians (in meteorology, the theoretical, physics-trained meteorologists called “dynamicists”). In what follows, I will seek to account for this fact through analysis of historical and cultural factors shaping the relationships between these groups and climate modeling.
Representing a new hybrid form of scientific inquiry, climate modeling gradually assumed a central role in the atmospheric sciences, to the point of sidelining empiricists and theoreticians. At important U.S. research institutions such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the tasks of these two groups were increasingly made subservient to the climate modeling enterprise. Moreover, despite the need for all three groups—empiricists, theoreticians, and modelers (the latter initially mainly made up of young scientists with more mathematical know-how than knowledge of the actual atmosphere—to produce good models, in practice (i.e., as revealed through my fieldwork) empiricists and theoreticians felt that their knowledge and expertise were not always integrated into that enterprise. As illustrated through specific examples described below, a “fear of loss of thinking” in science informs these criticisms due to the overreliance of simulation technology.
Meteorological empiricists and theoreticians enjoy insight into weather and climate dynamics that informs their critical views of the models and of how climate modeling sometimes is carried out and results presented and used to inform environmental understanding and policy. They recognize that many modelers are good mathematicians but portray them, as one put it, as “so involved with running their models that they haven’t put the time in thinking how the atmosphere works.” Some modelers recognize a certain factual basis for some of these criticisms, noting a common inability or reluctance among modelers to recognize their models’ shortcomings. The associated tensions reflect an epistemological issue characteristic of 20th century science—the question of whether the best understanding of the atmosphere is gathered by “those who crunch the numbers, but never look outside,” or by those who don’t use equations but who “read the sky”.
Another meteorologist of similar profile noted weather researchers’ sense of marginalization because the IPCC became the authority on climate change rather than the Working Group for Climate Change Detection unit that their leaders created in the mid- to late 1980s under the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Adding to the sting, members of the broader atmospheric research community discredited the unit’s authority on the climate issue, on the grounds that it was made up of bureaucrats and weather forecasters.8 With an element of humor, a research meteorologist I interviewed caricatured the feeling among his peers, saying “nobody loves [them] anymore and nobody knows the real atmosphere.”
JC comment: This is the first I’ve heard of the WMO Working Group for Climate Change Detection. It seems that this Working Group is now joint between WMO and WCRP CLIVAR, see this [link].
For their specific, experience-based reasons, but similar to the contrarian physicist trio, older generation research meteorologists’ criticisms of climate models and reservations about the current level of preoccupation with ACC are thus often infused with a sense of alienation and regret about broad-based transformations in science and society since the cold war decades. They have witnessed increased internal strife and politicization of their field with the rise of environmental concern in the contexts of nuclear technology, global cooling, ozone depletion, and, more recently, ACC. The ones I interviewed were all environmentally concerned, but questioned the strong focus on ACC in science and society, noting other issues of concern, such as population growth and depletion of natural resources. But they were—mostly quietly so—uncomfortable about recent trends in science, including climate models and the IPCC. With characteristic ambivalence, they closely linked climate modeling with a lamented politicization of their field, while also acknowledging the particular power of the models as heuristics tools. What they react to, above all, are the uses of the models as truth-machines.
As in the case of the physicist subset of contrarians, members of this older generation of research meteorologists express scientific values in line with Mode 1 science. For example, one such meteorologist expressed being troubled by the IPCC, noting that its mode of operating diverges from “the traditional role of science,” according to which hypotheses are rigorously tested: “The IPCC doesn’t aggressively seek to disprove its own hypothesis. The thrust of the IPCC is to look for the social and political consensus. I find that really troubling. It’s really different. . . .”
Adding pain to injury, nonmodeling meteorologists frequently found their access to research funds greatly reduced, if not entirely cut, with the emergence of GCMs and concern about ACC, especially when their research proposals were not designed to confirm or otherwise advance the theory of ACC.
Theoretical meteorologists (“dynamicists”) appeared in my research as a mainstream subgroup inclined to question GCM output. This subgroup also highlighted generational differences and identified with those of the “older school” who had been trying for a good many years to get a kind of conceptual model of how the climate system works before, in the words of one of them, “the modelers came along and said, ‘It’s hopeless to do it that way. We’re just going to have to simulate rather than understand.’”
Contrasting himself to modelers—and to those whom he called “catastrophists” and the “CO2 folks”—a mainstream dynamicist (interviewed in 1995) explicitly identified with a “group of critics,” with physicists, and with “the school that believes that the climate is an extraordinarily stable system.” He perceived a warming trend in global data but judged it to be roughly half a degree and thus far below model estimates of 6 or so degrees, contesting the right of anyone “to say something like that is reliable when all it takes into account is one factor among many others” and when it omits important systemic feedbacks.
Dynamicists were less personally and negatively impacted by the rise of GCMs compared to the empirical meteorologists. They largely continued to benefit from the prestige theoretical knowledge endows in science, and their criticisms tend to reflect a subtle sense of superiority in relation to the GCM enterprise, which they associate with engineering and criticize for its weak base in physics-based understanding of the phenomena being modeled. In a similar expression of superiority, dynamicists I interviewed sometimes expressed feeling “ashamed” about IPCC practices and the ACC “hype” in their field.
Demonstrating the moderation and complex thinking characteristic of mainstream skeptics, mainstream theoretical meteorologists showed moderation in their environmental skepticism and did not categorically dismiss a longer list of environmental issues. Some made a point of expressing disagreement with the “wide antiscience movement” that they identified with the U.S. Republican party.
This analysis identifies both differences and continuities between contrarians and mainstream skeptically inclined scientists. Besides their staunch conservatism, contrarian scientists articulate especially strongly culturally laden criticisms of transformations in the sciences associated with a new age characterized by rising environmentalism and a new mode of knowledge production (Mode 2 science). For reasons rooted in the particularities of their knowledge, experience, and subcultures, older generation representatives of three subgroups—theoretical and empirical research meteorologists, in addition to weather forecasters—show particular inclinations to question elements of climate science, in particular climate models. These three groups traditionally made up the field of meteorology and have a noncommitted—and sometimes even a somewhat alienated and antagonistic—relationship to modeling, which conditions their skepticism toward ACC. This skepticism has facilitated backlash instigators’ efforts to enroll some of them in campaigns, a few as full-fledged contrarians. It is noteworthy that contrarian scientists tend to be empiricists and physicists (i.e., theoreticians).
JC summary comments
Well it has been gratifying to read a social science paper about climate change skepticism that focuses on something other than politically motivated ‘denialism’. I think Lahsen has provided some real insights.
There seems to be an age issue here. As far as I can tell, nearly all of the scientists interviewed were at least as old as I am (or much older). My graduate education was just on the cusp of the rise of climate modeling (mid/late 70’s). My graduate education was strongly theoretical, and my postdoc was predominantly empirical. By the mid-1990’s, it was pretty clear that the way to get funding was to argue that what you were doing would improve climate models, and I jumped on that bandwagon.
This article motivated me to conduct a thought experiment of looking ahead 20 years, to ponder what a social scientist such as Lahsen would say about the meteorological/atmospheric core of climate science circa 2030, which is reflected in how we are educating atmospheric and climate scientists today. I see three divergent trends:
- Subsuming meteorology into interdisciplinary environmental studies-type educational programs, with a strong emphasis on analyzing climate model output in context of societal impacts
- Model-centric meteorology, where the emphasis is on data assimilation, manipulation and visualization of large data sets, and weather and climate diagnostics using the output of weather/climate models.
- Back to our theoretical and empirical roots. Such an approach is being adopted by MIT’s Lorenz Center [link].
When it comes to hiring new faculty and introducing new courses, I have come down strongly on the side of beefing up #3. I am worried that fundamental (theoretical) atmospheric/climate dynamics is a dying field, with the ascendance of the large weather and climate models, which IMO is not a good thing for the fields of meteorology and climate science (nor is this a good thing for the future of the large weather and climate models). There are some very difficult problems here, and we need an infusion of expertise from mathematics and physics conducting research in nonlinear science and complex systems, in collaboration with experts in atmospheric and climate dynamics.
One obvious question that arises from reading Lahsen’s paper is how large is the population of climate skeptics in the mainstream research community. Is this the 3 percent of Lewandowsky and others? Or is this a much larger community? Hard to know. Speaking of Lewandowsky, don’t miss Ben Pile’s devastating takedown at Spiked.