A(nother) Nod to Latour: Science, the sciences, and Moving Beyond Uncertainty Toward Resiliency


There is a rapidly growing variety of environmental communication theories concerning the rhetorical framing and implications of the politically divisive terms “climate change” and “global warming.” Both terms influence – yet contradict and confuse – public understanding of the science, resulting in extreme alarmism, extreme apathy, or – in the middle – a variety of well-intentioned yet disjointed responses; responses without the consistency and collective potential necessitated by a productive and sustainable approach to this global environmental problem. Despite variety concerning the specifics of environmental communications theories re: climate change/global warming, all theorists emphasize collective public response as an absolute necessity in affecting decision-making for climate change science policy that – despite uncertainties – reflects public valuation of opportunities to engage in sustainable actions.

From the way I’m beginning to see things, the problem is not necessarily that the public resists engagement in sustainable actions, but rather that the recommended actions haven’t been thought through slowly enough to be consistently articulated, and –more damning – that the recommended actions aren’t sustainable; they neglect to address long-term solutions. To complicate things further – the science itself is described by various, competing political agendas using contradictory terminology and rhetoric (and, as explained below, sometimes the agendas even exchange and re-define terminology, choosing the term/rhetoric that appears to fit the science as it’s occurring …)

Instead of quibbling over these uncertainties, current environmental communications scholars like Meyer (see Meyer, R. (2011). The Public Values Failures of Climate Science in the US.Minerva. Retrieved from http://solsgrads.asu.edu/) argue in favor of decision-making (re: climate science policy) that occurs despite uncertainty: decision-making that doesn’t revolve around the reduction of uncertainty, because “Reduction of uncertainty offers neither a sensible metric by which to judge progress in climate science, nor a reasonable surrogate for the goal of generating useful information (National Research Council 2005). Here’s where Latour comes in: in a Latourian sense, you could say that the current preoccupation of climate science with uncertainty (either with reducing it, i.e. proving progress, or leveraging it, as a means of delegitimizing climate science research/policy-making) reflects the ideology of Latour’s (big “s”) Science – “… defined as the politicization of the sciences by (political) epistemology in order to make public life impotent by bringing to bear on it the threat of salvation by an already unified nature…” (Politics of Nature, 249). The following explanation outlines (a very incomplete version of) my logic re: how Latour’s Science is reflected in the current preoccupation with uncertainty (one of the primary roadblocks concerning public understanding of climate science and the subsequent decision-making re: effective* climate science policy). *“effective” climate science policy would be grounded in the types of propositions suggested by Meadows, Meadows, & Randers in Limits to Growth, etc.

The politicization of the sciences is perhaps the clearest of the parallels … “climate change” and “global warming” have immediately identifiable rhetorical implications, as Meyers explains (see http://www.washingtonpolicy.org/blog/post/climate-change-where-rhetoric-defines-science), “Moving from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ has been the major rhetorical trend among climate alarmists during the last year. The primary cause is that heavy snowfall across the country this winter is inconsistent with past claims about the impacts of global warming.”

Sidenote: Interesting that we’re currently experiencing a massive, nation-wide heat wave … does this mean that the rhetoric must change again, in order to respond to the pressure of perfectly predicting the timing, etc. of climate scenarios?  When the science doesn’t “deliver” what the rhetoric promises, do we simply change the rhetoric until it’s consistent? Continuing to pressure climate scientists to determine absolute certainty about the exact “who/s, whats, wheres, and whens” of climate change catastrophe/s expends valuable time and energy in the wrong directions. Instead, as I will explain in more detail below, we ought to be engaging ourselves in an ideology that accepts the uncertainties of science and uses those uncertainties as opportunities, as a means of researching potential solutions to the situation at hand: temperature rise. The current rhetoric, and the political implications of competing terminology/rhetorics, distracts from real progress – from real understandings and productive responses to the challenge to engage in sustainable – and rewarding – opportunities.

To complicate the rhetorical trending of climate alarmists a bit further, adding to public confusion re: “what to call it” are conflicting reports – from credible sources. Per the Atlantic Monthly, an article published in Public Opinion Quarterly shows “climate change” as the preferred rhetoric (by Republican voters) over “global warming.” The sentence following the results of the study reads, “… sixteen percent of Republican respondents apparently weren’t aware that “climate change” is synonymous with “global warming.” The Seattle Times, Meyers writes, is “… taking rhetorical steps to ensure that [the rhetorical terms] are not [synonymous].” The politicization of the terms continues, as the terms are parsed re: which alludes to primarily human-caused temperature rise versus non-human/natural/ “normal” temperature fluctuation, in that some argue that “global warming” implicates humans as primarily responsible for temperature rise and “climate change” as implying “natural causes” – i.e. fate – eradicating humans’ (presumably considered from this perspective as “un-natural”?) responsibilities in transitioning to a sustainable society, etc. By whatever explanation/justification, the terms are undeniably politicized, masking the very propositions that could potentially enable productive responses (public understanding and policy) to the hypotheses of climate science. The bottom line here is that climate science currently exists as a Latourian “S”cience , in which the competing terms/rhetorics/perspectives/ideologies are politicized to the extent that public understanding/responses to either term aren’t useful because they are “closed” responses; responses to political disputes (which lead to more endlessly cyclical political disputes, etc.) re: proven origin, accurately predicted weather patterns, etc. rather than responses that seek to remedy the real issue at hand; temperature rise. We have more than enough science to know, with certainty, that “… the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing exponentially, greenhouse gases trap heat that would otherwise escape from the Earth into space … trapped heat will increase the temperature of the Earth over what it would otherwise be … the warming will be unequally distributed, [and] … the ocean will expand and sea levels will rise …” (Meadows, Meadows & Randers 117-118). We have the science. Now, we have to shift from a closed ideology of Science to an open ideology of the sciences; we must communicate and practice sustainable solutions.

Science vs. “the sciences”

The “sciences” contradict Science in that they are defined as “… one of the five essential skills of the collective in search of propositions (versus epistemology) with which it is to constitute the common world and take responsibility for maintaining the plurality of external realities” (Latour 249). Whereas Science seeks to eradicate uncertainties, to offer nonnegotiable, unchangeable proof, the sciences seek propositions. Above all, propositions are open to – and subsequently reflect – public values, which Meyer explains are primarily influential in political decision-making and management (stakeholder participation and support is one of the most important facets of interagency climate science policy). Propositions reflect public values, from Latour’s perspective, because they represent the negotiation of values as those values pertain to humans’ existence with nonhumans. It is through these relationships that priorities are revealed (“priorities” being a synonym, here, for “values”). A proposition is “… an association of humans and nonhumans before it becomes a full-fledged member of the collective, an instituted essence (essence = provisional conclusion) … [and] unlike statements, propositions insist on the dynamics of the collective in search of good articulation …” (Latour 247-248). If propositions insist on the “dynamics of the collective,” which are constantly changing, engaging multiple external realities (the various priorities/values as represented by the public) as the values are negotiated and re-negotiated, then the sciences consist of researching, identifying, practicing, challenging, revising … etc. public values. Meyer’s argument in “The Public Values Failures of Climate Science in the US” identifies public values as: useful information, high-quality science, transdisciplinary opportunities, transparency and communication, and stakeholder participation and support. None of these values speak to the desire for a unified, predicted, proven, or certain existence – an apparently consistent state (“nature”?) in which we exist/seek to exist. Therefore, it appears as though public values, which are currently (per Meyer) largely ignored in science/climate science policy, are feasibly accomplished/only accomplished through the ideology of “the sciences” because the sciences consist of propositions which are being negotiated now and in the future … the sciences are “in search of propositions…” not “offering proof/statements of truth or falsehood. Meyer explains that environmental communications theorists/rhetoricians, etc. can speak more accurately/effectively to public values by setting goals for science policy rather than goals for science. This means that we ought to focus our scholarship/practice on ways in which propositions – values – are negotiated into policy, rather than on the ways in which Science can be validated in certain proof/s.

Moving Beyond Uncertainty Toward Resiliency

Resiliency offers a solution in tandem with Latour’s ideology of “the sciences.”

Resiliency: the turning of threats into opportunities. In terms of climate science/policy, this means that: 1. It is accepted that (however certain/uncertain, the Earth’s temperature is rising and we are responsible for doing something about it; and 2. The opportunities to engage in the perspective that potential threats (unchecked temperature rise) can – and must – be reinterpreted (i.e. “resiliency” vs. “climate change” or “global warming”) because in changing the terminology, the rhetorical implications, opportunities, are –  at the most basic level – possible. When “climate change” and “global warming” are used to explain temperature rise, the first consequence is that both terms reference uncertainty, meaning that despite the context in which they’re being used, they are thoroughly riddled with political debate concerning the degree of certainty to which the Earth’s temperature is rising, and the degree of certainty to which humans and or “nature” is responsible, etc. The second consequence is that the terms are closed; they don’t readily allow for productive actions to be articulated or acted upon. We need to take “resiliency” seriously as a way of practicing “the sciences”: in searching for propositions – opportunities – to engage in responsible actions, actions that have the flexibility to respond to the variety of realities that exist concerning temperature rise and the postulated effects of what a sustainable/unsustainable future may consist of.

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About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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