Congress 2010: Evelyn Fox Keller, Climate Change Science, and Scientific Literacy

The Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science hosted a lecture by prolific science studies scholar Evelyn Fox Keller during this year’s Congress. In her talk “Climate Science, Truth, and Democracy,” Keller discussed how, why, and towards what outcomes scientific experts have thus far engaged in public and political debates on climate change. She argued that nothing in scientific training prepares scientists to communicate their findings with publics; furthermore, many scientists are unwilling to do so because they fear being perceived as being “unscientific” or “political.” Scientists are committed to the belief that science is capable of delivering value-free access to truth. Instead of strengthening the case for their claims about climate change, this has weakened them precisely because it is used as a reason to shy away from public discourses and debates, which are then not as informed by scientific knowledge as they could be.  This disengagement of scientists from public debates has enabled the climate change “deniers” to have an incredible and unbalanced amount of airtime and attention.

Scientists then, must engage with publics, and this will mean that they recognize that science is not apolitical. But confidence in science is still possible. Scientific claims are made very carefully; with proper understanding of the basis of scientific claims, we can see them as “true enough” for us to make decisions about whether and how to act on them. Keller suggested that scientific claims give us our best shot at understanding the past, present, and future – especially of climate change.

Keller’s recommendation is that their needs to be training on how to clearly and effectively articulate the findings of science built  into the education and professionalization of scientists. This is a reformulation of conventional understandings of “scientific literacy,” which normally refers to the need for publics to be better educated on how science works and why its claims are compelling. Instead, Keller advanced a kind of “public literacy” for scientists.

While I appreciated Keller’s argument for the public literacy of scientists, I felt it rested very heavily on her belief in the evidence supporting the existence of anthropogenic climate change. While I certainly support this, I wonder how her analysis would play out differently for phenomena for which there isn’t such unified scientific consensus, or for which there are competing knowledge claims coming from outside of science (like knowledge with a religious or experiential base). I’m left wondering whether Keller’s reformulation of scientific literacy is really the same thing as the dissemination model of public understandings of science, in which there is a one-way flow of information between scientists and publics – particularly if the training she argues for better equips them to “tell their story,” but not to hear the stories of others.

Do scientists make the most compelling knowledge claims? What should be the weight and credence of their expertise? For me, Keller’s talk has provided a provocative basis upon which to start to think through these questions.

Post edit: My colleague Mark Vardy is doing some great work on climate change and democracy that you should check out.

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