So this brief post arose in response to a blog post on another site entitled “What’s the point of social science?”. In this piece the authors’ described their experience attending a conference in France which addressed the topic of “Confidence, Credibility, and Authority in Climate Sciences and Politics”.
Now I have no idea what the quality of individual papers and presentations at this conference was, but the authors of the blog were clearly unimpressed by the social science contributions. As they noted:
The talks from scientists were generally straightforward, but the social science talks inevitably left us waiting for the punchline. They would get to the end and stop, before reaching any real conclusion. This has been a common impression we have both got from a number of similar events. The speakers tend to be long on historical description and retrospective analysis, and short on anything amounting to overall vision, substantive advice or predictive claims. (There have been notable exceptions to this general impression, but they are rare.)
In their discussions with a social scientist at said conference the view was presented that:
…the main point of social science was to provide stories – his word – that described how human society worked. And these stories were to be judged primarily on how plausible or convincing they sounded. The concept of “truth” as a scientist would interpret it didn’t come into the matter – truth was basically determined as whatever ideas were currently popular, nothing more.
Reading this post, I had to admit I understood some of the authors’ frustration, particularly on a subject as important as climate change. At several conferences and workshops I’ve attended in recent years there is a clear divide between the perspectives of climate scientists dealing with the hard data and realities of physics, chemistry and biology and colleagues from the humanities and social sciences who are also interested in climate change but come at this topic from a very different perspective. For the scientists there is often an underlying frustration with the ambiguity and dense linguistic conventions of humanities and social science researchers. Often there is also a clear quantitative versus qualitative methodological division. Here the above-stated frustration with ‘telling stories’ often comes to the fore.
Reflecting on this, I think a large part of the communication breakdown comes from deeper epistemological and ontological differences in how we see the world. If you maintain a positivist view of social inquiry then yes you are likely to be frustrated and dismissive of a large body of research in the humanities and social sciences which use a more interpretivist and social constructionist perspective. However, I would suggest positivism is a fairly limited perspective in trying to understand human society (witness the limits of neoclassical economics).
My own research into climate change and corporate capitalism is explicitly social constructionist but I find this both a far more informative and interesting approach in seeking to answer what I consider to be the really big and important questions in this space; specifically, why despite blindingly evident scientific evidence of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change – human society has decided to ignore the threat? The answer, I argue, is that the ideology and political power of economic elites such as major business corporations makes it (to quote Fredric Jameson) “easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”.
The only way to really get at these sort of issues (questions of economic power, the construction of hegemonic discourses of ‘economic growth’ and ‘free markets’, the creation and maintenance of a capitalist imaginary of endless growth, the political strategies employed by corporate elites) is via a qualitative, interpretivist and social constructionist lens.
After all, our knowledge of anthropogenic global warming stretches back over two centuries and we have had at least four decades of political hand-wringing about climate change and yet humanity’s combined greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow and indeed are accelerating. How to make sense of this insanity? This is where critical social inquiry is essential.
One thought on “What Use is Social Science in Understanding the Climate Crisis?”
It depends what your expectations are, no? Not wanting to be too gloomy (!) but I’d invoke Sturgeon’s Law – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon%27s_law
Also, social scientists are trained to/expected to/safe to describe what has been, and to play endless word games (Foucault this, Bourdieu that). What they are scared to do is explicitly criticise the powerful and to suggest things that We Should Do. That would be “normative” and (therefore) unprofessional…