Public philosophy 2: experts and climate change

Once we accept the expert authority of climate science, we have no basis for supporting the minority position.

So argues Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, in ‘The Stone’, a forum within the New York Times Opinionator section for contemporary philosophy ‘on issues both timely and timeless’.  In essence, he’s doing some public philosophy, applying ‘critical thinking to information and events that have appeared in the news.’

His position is based on the ‘logic of appeals to the authority of experts’.  If we accept who the experts are on a particular topic, and that our own status as non-experts excludes us from adjudicating disputes among said experts, then we must also recognise that we have no basis for rejecting the truth of any claim that is backed by a strong consensus within that community.

In the case of climate change, neither the existence of an expert academic field of climate science nor that of a strong consensus that human activities are causing the planet to warm can be challenged.  So, argues Gutting, the only way a non-expert can legitimately challenge climate change is by proposing that climate science ‘lacks the scientific status needed to be taken seriously in our debates about public policy’.  In passing, he notes that such a critique – though unlikely to find much traction in the case of climate science – may well prove more promising for ‘various sub-disciplines of the social sciences’.

Let’s say we accept this, but we then arrive at a problem.  How does expert knowledge translate into policy?  What is its role?  As Gutting acknowledges, scientific conclusions don’t have absolute authority in democratic debates, though his reasoning is based on logic rather than questions of accountability, that is, the fact of global warming is exists separate from and therefore doesn’t imply any particular policy response to that fact.

This is a sequential model – the experts generate consensus then effectively turn the body of knowledge over to ‘us’ to make the value judgements their science cannot and formulate policy accordingly.  I’m not sure even in the so-called ‘hard’ sciences that it works like this, but even if it does, the process of policymaking is itself one that calls for forms of expertise.  Returning to climate change, the importance of people’s behaviour, their beliefs, practices and ways of making meaning of their lives, is being increasingly discussed.  Once we get into the humanities and social sciences, the disciplines with much to offer in this dimension, we get into highly contested debates, we lose the consensus to which Gutting refers.

But rather than seeing this as a problem (where a perceived lack of scientific status leads to a lesser status in policy debates), can we instead recognise a process to which these forms of expertise have distinctive and important contributions to make?  Can the lack of consensus be productive?  Policymaking involves reconciling interests, beliefs and evidence that sometimes overlap, sometimes conflict.  It involves holding in mind at the same time different levels of human organisation and considering how those levels interact, how policy might affect that interaction.  It’s conditioned by institutions, with all their complexity of structures and relationships.  It’s many other things besides, but as a process it could surely benefit from forms of expertise that fundamentally engage with those kind of issues.  A sequential model has its attractions, but the role of expertise in policymaking isn’t that simple, because policymaking isn’t simple.  Question is, can the humanities and social sciences turn complexity and lack of consensus into a strength?

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