The politicisation of climate science is perhaps best illustrated by the emerging role of the social sciences in placing interpretations on human perception of, and responses to, “the science.”
Social sciences, including sociology, psychology, economics and political science have been enthusiastic entrepreneurs in seeking to map the political and scientific battlefield that is climate science today. In many cases, mere mapping has moved into partisanship, such as where psychologists seek to identify personality traits or core beliefs which allegedly explain either an individual’s scientific convictions or their personal response to the climate wars (e.g. Lewandowsky et al). For these social scientists, the starting point is that “the science is settled,” and damaging, human caused climate change is upon us. The big questions revolve around persuading the public and politicians to act in ways considered to be commensurate with their assessment of urgency.
Sociology, which can be defined as the study of the structure and functioning of society and human behaviour, has leapt enthusiastically into partisan mode. My proposition is that this is a perversion of sociology for ideological ends. Further, the work that comes out of this distortion of the aims of true sociology is typically shoddy and derivative, but that is beyond the scope of this post.
This is a huge and complex topic. To focus the discussion to a manageable level, I have taken as my primary text “Science as a Vocation”, an address given by Max Weber at Munich University in 1918. It may seem odd to choose an almost 100 year old paper for this discussion. Let me explain.
German Max Weber (1864 – 1920) was one of the most influential thinkers of his era, and his ideas still permeate politics, economics, history, philosophy and sociology today. He described and analysed Western culture and society, and its historical roots, with a breadth and depth that is truly staggering. His best known work, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” created a set of assumptions about how wealth is created in Western society which is still unconsciously adhered to by hundreds of millions of people today. He wrote extensively about the interaction between religion (in the East and West), culture and economics. He was respected by, and consulted with, great economists such as Schumpeter and von Mises. He created the first systemic typology of bureaucracy. His “Politics as a Vocation” included his characterisation of the State as as an entity which successfully claims a “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.”
There is much, much more, but you get the idea. Weber was a giant of modern Western thought. And, for the purposes of this discussion, he is regarded as possibly the most influential figure in the development of sociology – not just in the narrow sense, but also in terms of significant contributions to political economy and historical interpretation. (For those interested in learning a bit more about Weber, his Wikipedia entry is in this instance a good starting point.)
Weber’s address to aspiring scientists (among others) at Munich University needs to be seen in the context of Germany being a powerhouse of scientific and intellectual achievement at the time. He covers a wide range of topics, including the difference between German and US universities, the rationale for studying anything at all, the similarities and differences between great artists and great scientists, religious belief and science, and much more. This post can only touch on a few of his points. For the most, I will let him speak for himself, with brief comments on the excerpts posted. The excerpts are in chronological order.
“In the United States, where the bureaucratic system exists, the young academic man is paid from the very beginning. [German entry level academics could only claim fees from their students] To be sure, his salary is modest; usually it is hardly as much as the wages of a semi-skilled laborer. Yet he begins with a seemingly secure position, for he draws a fixed salary. As a rule, however, notice may be given to him just as with German assistants, and frequently he definitely has to face this should he not come up to expectations.
These expectations are such that the young academic in America must draw large crowds of students. This cannot happen to a German docent; once one has him, one cannot get rid of him. To be sure, he cannot raise any ‘claims.’ But he has the understandable notion that after years of work he has a sort of moral right to expect some consideration. ”
(Even in 1918, Weber identified the structure of American universities as essentially bureaucratic, in contrast to German (and other European) universities, which were more plutocratic. While merit was important in both cases, US institutions expected their junior academics’ salaries to be repaid with certain levels of performance in attracting numbers of students. German universities had junior staff who need not have large classes. But they needed enough money from elsewhere to support themselves.)
“As a rule, the full professor gives the ‘big’ courses and the docent confines himself to secondary ones. The advantage of these arrangements is that during his youth the academic man is free to do scientific work, although this restriction of the opportunity to teach is somewhat involuntary.
In America, the arrangement is different in principle. Precisely during the early years of his career the assistant is absolutely overburdened just because he is paid.”
(Since many scientists do their best work when they are young, the consequences of loading up young academic scientists with teaching can be perverse.)
“The large institutes of medicine or natural science are ‘state capitalist’ enterprises, which cannot be managed without very considerable funds. Here we encounter the same condition that is found wherever capitalist enterprise comes into operation: the ‘separation of the worker from his means of production.’ The worker, that is, the assistant, is dependent upon the implements that the state puts at his disposal; hence he is just as dependent upon the head of the institute as is the employee in a factory upon the management.”
(This passage refers to increasing “Americanisation” of German scientific institutions, because the resources required for scientific research were rapidly increasing.)
“It would be unfair to hold the personal inferiority of faculty members or educational ministries responsible for the fact that so many mediocrities undoubtedly play an eminent role at the universities. The predominance of mediocrity is rather due to the laws of human co-operation, especially of the co-operation of several bodies, and, in this case, co-operation of the faculties who recommend and of the ministries of education.
A counterpart are the events at the papal elections, which can be traced over many centuries and which are the most important controllable examples of a selection of the same nature as the academic selection. The cardinal who is said to be the ‘favorite’ only rarely has a chance to win out. The rule is rather that the Number Two cardinal or the Number Three wins out. The same holds for the President of the United States. Only exceptionally does the first-rate and most prominent man get the nomination of the convention. Mostly the Number Two and often the Number Three men are nominated and later run for election. The Americans have already formed technical sociological terms for these categories, and it would be quite interesting to enquire into the laws of selection by a collective will by studying these examples, but we shall not do so here.”
(Interesting comment on selection by structured bureaucratic process, whether in the academic, religious or political sphere.)
“In our time, the internal situation, in contrast to the organization of science as a vocation, is first of all conditioned by the facts that science has entered a phase of specialization previously unknown and that this will forever remain the case. Not only externally, but inwardly, matters stand at a point where the individual can acquire the sure consciousness of achieving something truly perfect in the field of science only in case he is a strict specialist.
All work that overlaps neighboring fields, such as we occasionally undertake and which the sociologists must necessarily undertake again and again, is burdened with the resigned realization that at best one provides the specialist with useful questions upon which he would not so easily hit from his own specialized point of view. One’s own work must inevitably remain highly imperfect.”
(This was a relatively new, and irrevocable, change in the nature of scientific careers in 1918. Weber notes that social scientists are necessarily generalists, and the difference in the precision of their work as a consequence.)
“In the field of science, however, the man who makes himself the impresario of the subject to which he should be devoted, and steps upon the stage and seeks to legitimate himself through ‘experience,’ asking: How can I prove that I am something other than a mere ‘specialist’ and how can I manage to say something in form or in content that nobody else has ever said ?–such a man is no ‘personality.’ Today such conduct is a crowd phenomenon, and it always makes a petty impression and debases the one who is thus concerned. Instead of this, an inner devotion to the task, and that alone, should lift the scientist to the height and dignity of the subject he pretends to serve.”
(The words ‘experience’ and ‘personality’ here have very specific meanings in German which do not easily translate. But the overall thrust is clear.)
“In science, each of us knows that what he has accomplished will be antiquated in ten, twenty, fifty years.
That is the fate to which science is subjected; it is the very meaning of scientific work, to which it is devoted in a quite specific sense, as compared with other spheres of culture for which in general the same holds. Every scientific ‘fulfilment’ raises new ‘questions’; it asks to be ‘surpassed’ and outdated. Whoever wishes to serve science has to resign himself to this fact.”
(Scientists should always be humble and keep a sense of perspective about their individual achievements.)
“To take a practical political stand is one thing, and to analyze political structures and party positions is another. When speaking in a political meeting about democracy, one does not hide one’s personal standpoint; indeed, to come out clearly and take a stand is one’s damned duty. The words one uses in such a meeting are not means of scientific analysis but means of canvassing votes and winning over others. They are not plowshares to loosen the soil of contemplative thought; they are swords against the enemies: such words are weapons. It would be an outrage, however, to use words in this fashion in a lecture or in the lecture-room. If, for instance, ‘democracy’ is under discussion, one considers its various forms, analyzes them in the way they function, determines what results for the conditions of life the one form has as compared with the other. Then one confronts the forms of democracy with non-democratic forms of political order and endeavors to come to a position where the student may find the point from which, in terms of his ultimate ideals, he can take a stand. But the true teacher will beware of imposing from the platform any political position upon the student, whether it is expressed or suggested.”
(His take on the difference between a professional practitioner and an advocate.)
“Thus far I have spoken only of practical reasons for avoiding the imposition of a personal point of view. But these are not the only reasons. The impossibility of ‘scientifically’ pleading for practical and interested stands–except in discussing the means for a firmly given and presupposed end–rests upon reasons that lie far deeper.
‘Scientific’ pleading is meaningless in principle because the various value spheres of the world stand in irreconcilable conflict with each other.”
(Beautifully and succinctly put.)
These are just a few snippets from a much longer work which is well worth reading. In it, Weber illustrates and applies sociology as he originally conceived it – understanding society and social relations, in this case, the world of vocational science.
It is but a tiny fragment of his enormous intellectual output across several disciplines, but provides some insight into a great thinker’s sociological perspectives on some of the issues that are as relevant to climate science in 2013 as they were to science as a whole in 1918.
These include: the bureaucratisation of universities and scientific institutions and its consequences; the implications of increasing specialisation in science and the role of generalist disciplines; the requirement of scientists to expect that their work will become obsolete; the separate roles of the professional and the advocate (although they may be the same person); and the oxymoronic nature of scientific advocacy for personal opinions based on values.
This is broad-brush stuff, to be sure, although there is a good deal more explication in the full text. Weber’s other work includes much more detailed and systematic analysis of sociology as a discipline, as well as detailed case studies. But it exemplifies what the best of sociology can look like, even in the form of a single speech given at a university in 1918.
JC comment: This is an invited guest post. I invited Johanna to do a guest post on this topic based upon her comments on a previous thread. As with all guest posts, please keep your comments civil and on topic.