by Judith Curry
Wanted: disruptive ideas on climate change.
Academics are being increasingly encouraged by our universities and the funding agencies to communicate: to make our research accessible and understandable, and help build public support for research. I have no quarrel with this (I obviously spend a lot of my time engaging with the public), but this emphasis on ‘communication’ is missing something important, particularly in the context of scientific issues of relevance to the great public debates of the day, e.g. climate change.
I’m not talking about advocacy/partisanship (plenty of that going around); rather I am talking about something else, that might be defined in the context of the ‘public intellectual.’
This post is motivated by a recent paper:
Some other articles referenced in this post:
- Alan Lightman: The Role of the Public Intellectual
- Nicholas Kristoff: Professors: We need you
- Harpers: The decline and fall in the US of the public intellectual
- AAUP: The case for academics as public intellectuals
- Prospect: Do public intellectuals matter?
- Christopher Hitchens: What is a public intellectual?
What is meant by ‘public intellectual’ and why do we need them?
I don’t really like the term ‘public intellectual’; it seems pretentious. The term brings to my mind people like Bertrand Russell, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Mary McCarthy, John Updike, Edward Said, Gore Vidal. Some scientists would arguably also make the list: Albert Einstein, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, James Watson. In the environmental world, we have Rachel Carson and James Lovelock.
A useful categorization is provided by Lightman, whereby the individuals mentioned above are Level III:
Let me now define what I mean by the public intellectual today. Such a person is often a trained in a particular discipline, such as linguistics, biology, history, economics, literary criticism, and who is on the faculty of a college or university. When such a person decides to write and speak to a larger audience than their professional colleagues, he or she becomes a “public intellectual.”
- Level I: Speaking and writing for the public exclusively about your discipline. This kind of discourse is extremely important, and it involves good, clear, simplified explanations of the national debt, how cancer genes work, or whatever your subject is.
- Level II: Speaking and writing about your discipline and how it relates to the social, cultural, and political world around it.
- Level III: By invitation only. A Level III intellectual is asked to write and speak about a large range of public issues, not necessarily directly connected to their original field of expertise at all.
Level I is what I would call ‘science communicators’. Level II is the one that is of particular relevance to the issues I want to address.
What is actually meant by a public intellectual? Here are some responses, of relevance to Level II:
Prospect: What such people offer is exactly what the public conversation needs: ideas, perspectives, criticism and commentary. What anyone who offers them should expect in return is robust examination of what they offer. Whether ideas come to be accepted or rejected, everyone gains by having them discussed. Can one give a catch-all definition of what it is to be a “public intellectual”? They have very little in common other than intelligence and engagement, and the fact that they speak out. Those three things, accordingly, might be taken to capture the essence.
Christopher Hitchens: However, we probably do need a term that expresses a difference between true intellectuals and the rival callings of “opinion maker” or “pundit.” I personally hope the word never quite loses this association with the subversive. There ought to be a word for those men and women who do their own thinking; who care for language above all and guess its subtle relationship to truth; and who are willing and able to nail a lie.
Matt Nisbet provides these reflections:
Instead of straight reporting of events or translation of expert knowledge, they specialize in the synthesis of complex, interdisciplinary areas of research, engaging in deductive analysis across cases and events, ‘working from the top down’, drawing connections, making inferences, and offering judgments
By focusing on synthesis, analysis, and criticism and by writing for popular outlets rather than academic forums, public intellectuals are generally less constrained by the need to maintain access to those in power, or by conventional thought within academe. This trait provides more freedom to challenge prevailing assumptions and conventions, developing in the process a distinctive voice. Public intellectuals also depend on maintaining a reputation for gathering evidence, citing authoritative sources, and appearing flexible enough to change their opinions in the face of contradictory evidence.
Political leaders and news organizations typically avoid challenging widely shared beliefs about a social problem. They instead rely on public intellectuals to lead the way, ‘disturbing the canonical peace’ and ‘defamiliarizing the obvious’ by identifying the flaws in conventional wisdom and by offering alternative renderings of a problem.
In the absence of public intellectuals challenging assumptions, those working on social problems may ‘be lacking in reality testing, be slower in adapting [their] policies and viewpoints to external as well as domestic changes, and be more ‘ideological’.’
AAUP: Given our training in intellectual rigor and openness, we should revel in and capitalize on the generative opportunities that result from the blurring of boundaries, exercising our disciplinary knowledge to focus the nation on a politics of problem solving, emphasize intellectual inquiry rather than partisanship, and conceptualize social challenges as dynamically interrelated. Additionally, we need to model and teach habits of mind for engaged citizenship—creativity, civic mindedness, the ability to mediate among competing viewpoints and interests.
The take home points for me, in terms of what the climate debate needs, are:
- ideas, perspectives, criticism and commentary.
- emphasize intellectual inquiry rather than partisanship,
- association with the subversive; men and women who do their own thinking
- identifying flaws in conventional wisdom and offering alternative renderings of a problem.
- ability to mediate among competing viewpoints and interests.
Disincentives from the academy
So, why aren’t more academics engaged in being public intelletuals, shooting for Level II?
Some insights from Lightman: For many years, it was considered a taboo, a professional stigma, for scientists to spend any time at all in writing for the general public. Such an activity was considered a waste of precious time, a soft activity, even a feminine activity. The proper job of a scientist was to penetrate the secrets of the physical world. Anything else was a waste of time, it was dumbing down.
Nicholas Kristof writes: Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates. A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.
From Harpers: But all shared a commitment to civic debate, which in conformist, consensus-driven America automatically poses dangers to what might otherwise be an orderly and comfortable career. Everyone on my list, whether left wing, right wing, or in between, got in trouble for taking positions that in an argumentative country such as France would be considered necessary and proper. Why is there now a dearth of well-known public intellectuals taking public positions? I suspect it’s partly because of the rise of politically oriented think tanks, whose “fellows” and “scholars” generally have ideological agendas that conflict with genuine scholarship and independent thinking. Many of these people are superficial pseudoscholars awaiting their next government job or TV talk-show appearance.
AAUP writes: Although the civic engagement movement has grown considerably over the past thirty years, institutional interest in funding and rewarding this movement has waned and faculty members remain entrenched in their disciplines.
Public intellectuals in the climate space
There is a substantial number of climate scientists active as ‘Level I’ science communicators: the list compiled by Kirk Englehardt in his interviews works as a starting point. Relevant individuals include: Kevin Trenberth, Gavin Schmidt, Kim Cobb, Marshall Shepherd, John Nielsen-Gammon. Katherine Hayhoe seems to be branching out into Level II issues. I would categorize Scott Mandia and John Abraham more as ‘pundits’, and Michael Mann as an ‘opinion enforcer’.
Matt Nisbet’s article examines individuals that I regard as Level II public intellectuals who are arguing for action on climate change, his list includes: Bill McKibben, Clive Hamilton, George Monbiot, David Suzuki, Paul Kingsnorth, Naomi Klein, Al Gore, Tom Friedman, Nicholas Stern, Jeffrey Sachs, Amory Lovins, Stewart Brand, Mike Hulme, Roger Pielke Jr, Steve Rayner, Ted Nordhaus Michael Shellenberger, Andrew Revkin, Anthony Giddens, Naomi Oreskes, and James Hansen.
Well, Nisbet’s list above focuses on public intellectuals on the ‘convinced’ side of the debate. What about public intellectuals on the ‘less convinced’ or ‘unconvinced’ sides of this?
In terms of ‘Level 1’ science communicators, some names are Pat Michaels, John Christy, Richard Lindzen. I would argue that Roy Spencer is venturing towards Level II with his books. Pundits include Marc Morano and Anthony Watts. In terms of Level II, examples include Bjorn Lomborg, Matt Ridley, Richard Tol, Eija-Ritta Korhola. These are just examples; by no means an exhaustive list. Some individuals with a lower public profile but nevertheless contributing in the spirit of Level II with their writings (mainly books) include Andrew Montford and Rud Istvan.
We clearly need more people in this space, from pundits to science communicators, but especially full-fledged (Level II) public intellectuals. Given the colossal import of the topic of climate change, why are there so few public intellectuals operating in this space? The disincentives at universities are pretty substantial. But the real issue is the ‘consensus enforcement’, which has resulted in the degeneration of discourse on both sides to mere partisanship, not to mention vehement attacks against opponents. We DON’T need any more partisan advocates; we already have plenty of those.
I think the root of the problem is mistaking climate change for a tame problem, and that a ‘speaking consensus to power’ approach would work. It hasn’t, and it won’t. We are dealing with a wicked mess. To break out of this rut, we need disruptive ideas, subversive ideas even, and alternative renderings/framing of the climate problem and its solutions.
I was struck by this statement from Harpers: “that in an argumentative country such as France would be considered necessary and proper.” Where is the provocative and politically ‘incorrect’ spirit of Charlie Hebdo in the climate debate? I am trying to think of French scholars active in the climate debate; I am only coming up with Claude Allegre and Jean Jouzel. Well we need some of the French ‘argumentative spirit’ here.
One issue that concerns me is that there are very few climate scientists operating at Level II public intellectuals. Jim Hansen is the primary example, with a few others flirting around the edges of Level II. One challenge is the need for interdisciplinary expertise. Jim Hansen, as an example, has developed considerable knowledge about renewable energy technologies.
The blogosphere has opened up a venue for scientists to develop a voice on the public-analytical side of the climate debate. However, the disincentives from the consensus enforcers remain profound, making it very uncomfortable for academics who are potentially interested in discussing alternative renderings of the climate problem and its solutions. This leaves think tanks (which tend to be partisan), or something for emeritus (retired) professors or otherwise independently wealthy individuals.
It occurred to me that I should say something about where I fit in all this. Beyond climate science, I am exploring the philosophy and sociology of climate science and the science-policy interface. I am trying to change the culture so climate scientists and others are motivated to think outside of the ‘consensus’ box about the wicked mess that is the climate change problem. Mostly, I appreciate doing what I find interesting and important, without worrying about how it is categorized.