Science and identity

Scientific knowledge, wrote Norbert Elias, is powerful because of its relative autonomy from the groups who produce it:

Scientific modes of thinking cannot be developed and become generally accepted unless people renounce their primary, unreflecting and spontaneous attempt to understand all their experience in terms of its purpose and meaning for themselves.

The recent spats over the e-mails from leaked or stolen from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia give an insight into what Elias might have meant by relative autonomy. The dispute over climate change is intensely political and ideological from both sides and helps us realise that science can never be entirely separate from the political and social processes of which we are part, and which we form, nor can it be separate from our sense of identity. It is clear from the furore surrounding the debate that very strong feelings have been provoked which appeal to these  themes of identity, truth and values.

From the perspective of the climate sceptics, every small mistake in data is a potential opening to destroy the whole edifice of the case for global warming, which they experience as a cult. It is difficult to judge how genuinely motivated the sceptics are, particularly with the accusations that some of them are funded by energy companies, but it is also possible to recognise their feelings of being totalised. The charge of ‘climate change denier’ carries the emotional charge of ‘Holocaust denier’ as it is intended to, so there is nowhere to stand but with the thesis of global warming. This strong Manicheastic tendency is likely to call out genuine rebellion in some if they feel they are being silenced.

From the perspective of those in support of the thesis of global man-made warming, sceptics threaten to tie them up in endless hours of justification, but also are threatening their identities as credible scientists with integrity. Some of the scientists whose work has been called into question seem to respond initially with strong feelings rather than further scientific argument, or have gone out of their way to destroy e-mails or cover over their data trails. This, of course, does not inspire confidence and provokes further cries of ‘foul’. This does not look like detached scientific practice, although it is a very human response to attack.

The iterations of  violent gesture and response between the two sides creates a polarizing effect where it becomes increasingly difficult to find a dispassionate but engaged place to stand where it would be possible to follow the argument but retain the possibility of saying ‘yes, but..’ One conclusion we might draw from this is that  ‘science’ can never ‘speak for itself’ as government ministers often seem to claim, but is a social activity of meaning-making amongst committed people who are striving to gain detachment from the object of their study. Nonetheless, the struggle to establish the relative autonomy of  knowledge will provoke strong feelings and challenges to identity amongst all those who become involved. That is to say, all of us.


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