Friday, November 2, 2012

science in the force field

Climate scientists have not yet reached consensus about whether global warming will tend to increase or decrease the total number of hurricane-strength storms. But there is strong agreement that warming creates the conditions for larger and more powerful hurricanes: warmer sea surface temperatures, higher sea levels and more moisture in the atmosphere. These general tendencies interact with other local and regional factors to produce the local weather.

Climatologist Kevin Trenberth parses the specific conjuncture that intensified Hurricane Sandy: ‘The sea surface temperatures along the Atlantic coast have been running at over 3C above normal for a region extending 800km off shore all the way from Florida to Canada. Global warming contributes 0.6C to this. With every degree Celsius [of warming], the water holding of the atmosphere goes up 7%, and the moisture provides fuel for the tropical storm, increases its intensity, and magnifies the rainfall by double that amount compared with normal conditions.’

In the week or so before Hurricane Sandy pummeled the northeast US, the warming denial industry was hard at work. The right-wing, Koch-funded Cato Institute (publishers of In Defense of Global Capitalism, among other dismal screeds) attempted to sabotage a US government assessment of climate change impacts by issuing what poses as an ‘addendum’ to the original. The 2009 report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, was prepared by the US Global Change Research Center and presented to Congress as a summary of the ‘best science’ on the subject. The authoring federal entity is itself a conglomeration of thirteen departments and agencies, including the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Smithsonian Institution,  but also others, like the Environmental Protection Agency, that are routinely contained by hostile political appointments, as well as a battery of agencies straightforwardly in the business of promoting or defending the status quo of accumulation (Departments of Commerce, Interior, Energy, Defense and State, and the Agency for International Development). One can only imagine the pressures and internal struggles that shaped the publication of this report.

Nevertheless, its findings were evidently considered unacceptable to the defenders of capital. Cato’s fake ‘addendum’, which deceptively mimics the original report’s cover and internal layout, tries to discredit the science, paints the impacts as negligible and dismisses the policy recommendations as foolish. This exercise in dissimulation against the public interest is in the tradition of the extractionist Wise Use lobby and the Heartland Institute’s attack on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) through a mimicking front company, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC).

Also in the last few weeks, a smeared climate scientist is fighting back with a lawsuit against the neo-con National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Michael Mann, director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center, has been a key figure in climate science. His 1999 timeline tracking global temperatures over the last 1000 years contributed to the scientific consensus about the link between global warming and human activities. In 2009, the organized forces of warming denial released a batch of emails stolen from the University of East Anglia, allegedly revealing scientists in the process of manipulating data. Mann’s name was on many of the emails. Seven investigations, subsequently conducted by the National Science Foundation, Penn State and others, found that allegations of academic fraud were groundless. But the charges are still routinely repeated by the mouthpieces of warming denial.

Mann’s lawsuit seeks damages for ‘false and defamatory statements’ by National Review reporter Mark Steyn and CEI analyst Rand Simberg, who went beyond accusations of academic fraud by comparing Mann to convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky (the disgraced ex-football coach at Penn State). Steyn repeated Simberg’s comparison on the National Review blog last July: ‘He has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science that could have dire economic consequences for the nation and the planet.’

These pre-Sandy episodes, and the inevitable post-storm scramble to manipulate public discussion about the links between extreme weather and climate change underscore how central and contested the role of science has become, as the effects of biospheric meltdown become increasingly inescapable. The pressures of the social force field are producing some strange and paradoxical results, some of which are actually hopeful.

Scientists are learning the hard way some ugly truths about the capitalist social process and the fate of messengers who bring bad news. The vicious attacks launched on them by ‘think tanks’ bankrolled by big oil and the Koch brothers and echoed endlessly on Fox News and right-wing radio, combined with the cynical unresponsiveness of politicians and ineffectiveness of global governance, are turning more and more scientists into social critics and political activists. Many, of course, already were. At all times, a minority of principled scientists have courageously spoken truth to power at their own risk.

But biospheric meltdown is evidently disturbing the larger relation between power and the scientific establishment. Cracks are spreading in the monolith of Big Science, the cozy corruptions of which were long fed by massive corporate and Pentagon R&D budgets. As the social force field responds to the actualities of climate change and the imperatives of adaptation, scientists in some fields are being exposed to new pressures and the acute discomforts of public controversy.

Scientists, like the rest of us, are all too human. It would be silly to expect them, as a group, to be more ethically and politically responsible than anyone else. Like the arts, philosophy, or critical theory, science is ostensibly autonomous from the dominating logics of capital. But no one is outside the force field, and in practice this ideal of autonomy is at best only relative. Shaped by society, scientific subjectivities internalize antagonisms in the usual ways and, as a whole, reflect the political opinions and partisan divisions that prevail in the general population. Still, it looks very much like a process of politicization is underway that, paradoxically, may foster critical self-reflection and work to revive some of the enlightenment impulses that withered under the business of post-Hiroshima science. This should be welcomed, and every move toward autonomous science supported.

It is certain that we need scientific research on climate change and the expert testimony of scientists about the implications. Ditto for mass extinction, ocean acidification and all the other converging processes of ecological degradation. Today the counsel of science is emphatically indispensable. Even tireless critics of domination and pseudo-democracy have to acknowledge that the processes of liberation and real self-government should empower, and in any case must not exclude, the practices of autonomous science. Understanding science as a field of social and political struggle, perhaps the critique of technocracy needs to become more nuanced and strategic.

The time, in any case, is ripe for renewed reflection on the social functions of science, actual and potential. As far as possible, such reflection should be a dialogue with scientists, rather than the reproduction of separations. Such reflection would need to be informed by an unblinking critical awareness of the history of modernist science, including those lapses and corruptions entangled with some of its most spectacular achievements. Above all, reflection on science must grapple with the social forces that compromise autonomy, shape and capture research agendas and dominate the practical appropriation of technology.

‘Had I stood firm,’ Brecht’s Galileo reflects, ‘the scientists could have developed something like the doctors’ Hippocratic oath, a vow to use their knowledge exclusively for mankind’s benefit. As things are, the best that can be hoped for is a lineage of inventive dwarves who can be hired for any purpose.’

But the shared challenges of biospheric meltdown are also an opening for something different – the emerging conflicts between climate science and the forces of accumulation may be a spur to that ‘new science’ beyond the domination of nature, called for by Marcuse.

If interdisciplinarity is in fact the defining condition of contemporary knowledge production, its specific forms and articulations still have to be worked out each time, by real people exposed to the force field. Let’s hope critical theory is included in the constellation. No doubt, the emerging process and struggle of self-rescue will lead critical theorists to study more science. Will it also lead scientists to critical theory?


More here: on Sandy, Cato’s fake addendum, and Mann’s lawsuit.

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