The social construction of climate change

Us rational nerd-type folks were irritated during the Science Wars (remember them? I suspect we have an armistice, but not a permanent peace) with various postmodern views of the scientific enterprise, including social construction and feminist epistemology, and were delighted by daring forays into the enemy's territory, like Sokal's Hoax. After all, when we write hard SF, we try to base it on reasonable modifications to the current scientific understanding of the universe. We do assume there is such a thing, and that it has something to do with the actual universe.

The recent furor over the stolen emails at the Climate Studies Unit at the University of East Anglia shows that the "current scientific understanding" of anthropogenic global warming is not socially constructed, but may be a bit slipperier than might seem at first.

Modernity's great generators of knowledge and wealth--trade, science, democracy--all involve managing the natural human urges to cooperate with those closest to us (thus building long-lasting personal bonds) in order to allow for large-scale anonymous information-maximizing transactions (thus making us richer and smarter).

Refusing nepotism, cronyism, and groupthink isn't easy. It violates all our natural hunting-band ingroup/outgroup default mental habits. So there is nothing weird or incomprehensible about what happened at the CSU, but there is nothing admirable either. Keeping objectivity is a constant struggle, because we so hate its results. Any coherent mental practice eventually leads to a result you are emotionally uncomfortable with: it's a sign (thought not a guarantee) that you are maintaining consistency. The CSU community seems to have gotten to like each other a bit too much.

For much of the louder part of the world, of course, the truth or falsehood of AGW is not the issue. Coalition is the issue. AGW has no more objective meaning to such people than the presence or absence of Filioque in the Creed, or Socialism in One Country, or wearing white after Labor Day (and, yes, I know people have died, at least for the first two, so I am aware such issues can lead to bloody results).

But we can't worry about the voices of those people when we are seeking some kind of knowlege. Ignoring them can sometimes be the hardest part of true science. What happened at CSU might be "inevitable". But so are plane crashes and house fires. We do our best to make sure they happen as infrequently as possible, with as little loss of life as possible.