A Changing Climate for Science

 

My book was recently published and I’ve been kindly permitted to publish an extract of the Preface to give a taste of it.

[Sophie Lewis, A Changing Climate for Science, 2017, Palgrave MacMillian, reproduced with permission of Palgrave MacMillan]

 

Preface: An Apprenticeship

I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was a small child. This book tells my story of becoming a scientist, and of struggling to reconcile this journey with my experience as a climate scientist. This is also my story of carving out a new view of science, and eventually of coming to identify myself as a postmodern scientist. To some, this term seems senseless at best, oxymoronic at worst; my aim throughout is to make the seemingly senseless become useful.

My story began in 1986 when my parents took me stargazing as a young child in the hope of glimpsing Halley’s Comet. We trudged for some time through the open grassy fields and then we waited, and we waited. It was a pale, grey night. In our part of the world, thick banks of stratus cloud masked the comet’s infrequent voyage across the skies. There was nothing to be seen that night, but still I was thrilled. I didn’t know it at the time, simply and childishly excited, but my interest had been piqued by science.

My family spent a lot of time in the foothills of the Australian Alps. As a child in the vast eucalyptus bush I collected furiously—old bones or teeth, snake skins, tadpoles, feathers, leaves, seed pods, river stones, freshwater yabbies, anything mobile and anything sessile. My uncle gave me a microscope and slide-making kit, and then a few years later, my grandmother gifted me a small telescope. In my mind, a rock might reveal a fossil and a starry night might give up a particularly breath-taking meteorite. I was hungry for answers to questions, hungry for new knowledge. The world of my childhood was a place to be consumed one piece at a time, all in quick succession.

At high school I studied as much science and mathematics as I could, and later when I started university, the teaching and learning of science became increasingly formalised. A small pocket full of seedpods and beetle casings was replaced by notebook sketches of Bunsen burners, atomic models, calculus, taxonomic ranks, fluid mechanics, general relativity and number theory. I still collected furiously, but now instead of odd bits and pieces found in gullies and frost hollows, I gathered information, consuming and ordering facts of ever-greater complexity. At my university, as the years of an undergraduate degree are completed, standard coursework characterised by dense discipline-specific information, models and methods, slowly gives way to specialised research training. Philosophers of science Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper are exalted, the scientific method memorised, logic discussed, and inductive and deductive reasoning delineated.

After I finished my undergraduate degree, I eagerly signed up to an Honours year. I decided to specialise in palaeoclimatology, which is the study of past climate change. Palaeoclimatology was located in a notoriously ambiguous Geography department, where I found myself one of only two young physical geographers-in-training amongst a large group of human geography students. By some peculiar university bureaucratic hurdle, all students were required to participate in the same units of Honours coursework, which were impossibly tasked to prepare us equally well as researchers in disparate fields. We all learned about the twentieth-century turns in the social sciences that influenced thinking in the discipline of geography, as well as the requirements of a scientist.

During the early days of that geography course, our professor asked who believed in the idea of an absolute truth. Put on the spot and filled with the signature undergraduate fright of being asked to think or act, no one raised a hand. The professor went on to chide the small band of physical geographers as poor specimens of scientists. What kind of scientist doesn’t uphold the idea of a universal, discoverable truth? I’m quite sure that I went on to hastily note down that a scientist believes in a singular understanding of the world. Quick! Sophie! That’s a scientist! Be that, do that!

Learning alongside human geography students, I superficially digested positivism, Marxism, structuralism, and postmodernism without any meaningful understanding of what each entailed. ‘No matter’, I thought! These social scientific curiosities were merely curious. The course was probably a useful experience, and I would at least know some more words that I could repeat in conversation later to seem nonchalantly well read and eloquent. And when the semester snapped shut with our final exams, I would at long last be a scientist! As a ‘proper’ scientist, my work was undeniably more important than the rest of my cohort, with their vague, poorly defined theories and methods that characterise research in social science.

After I submitted my Honours thesis, I moved to a new university to earn my PhD by researching a slightly different type of palaeoclimatology. A traditional understanding of the PhD is as an apprenticeship in science. A scientist is differentiated from a non-scientist—a non-expert—by these years of apprenticeship to an erudite supervisor, which essentially constitutes a specialised training. A PhD is the standard process through which students are metamorphosed into scientists. When I finished my PhD, I soon began a research fellowship in climatology, which was followed quickly by a second and third fellowship. I had trained to become a scientist and was finally there. Little Sophie would be so pleased!

Throughout my informal and formal education, I loved science and yearned to be a scientist. Yet it had never occurred to me to ask—what is science and what is a scientist? If I recall my rote-learned course material from those hazy, fun-filled undergraduate days, science constitutes a system of knowledge. It is a systematic enterprise that obtains knowledge through a formalised approach called ‘the scientific method’. A hypothesis is posed and tested, and knowledge acquired, but not produced. Science must be reproducible and it must be falsifiable. This was the singular epistemology that defined a scientist, as simply one who enacted science using these methods. That Honours’ level lecture on the central idea of an absolute truth remains the last formal discussion I’ve had about science and its ways of knowing. These helpful guardrails remain in place to stop scientists veering beyond this understanding.

After I commenced my first real scientific job as a postdoctoral research fellow, I began to feel vaguely uneasy about my research as a scientist. This uneasiness stubbornly refused to pass. It turns out that in my field of research, contemporary approaches often do not subscribe to the techniques or methodologies described by my undergraduate training. For example, I spent four years of my PhD reconstructing past changes in climate from incomplete data sources that lend themselves wonderfully to plural interpretations. My research now aims to understand current changes in climate using complex computer climate models that we are possibly unable to falsify.

Is this still science? If my scientific data are not readily reproducible, do they remain useful? Or what if we imagine that rather than positing and testing hypotheses, I generate novel understandings of the world by haphazard data mining? Is this then inherently ‘unscientific’? Where does this leave scientists? And, crucially, where does this leave science? With great dedication, I dutifully did my apprenticeship, but did I become an actual scientist?

In this book, I propose a new view of science. This is my own reappraisal of science, a re-imagining of scientific practise as nuanced, transparent, diverse and creative. Ultimately, I pose a place beyond current understandings of science’s ways of knowing. I describe this as a ‘hinterland,’ a conceptual space that allows for diverse practices of science, centred on a flexible and inclusive way of being a scientist. Within this hinterland, I describe myself as a new type of scientist by using the seemingly oxymoronic description of ‘postmodern scientist.’

As a caveat, I do not profess to have a deep understanding of theory of knowledge. A philosopher of science or a sociologist could address these questions with far more intellectual heft than I can. As such, the following chapters are not deeply rooted in literature. Instead, I describe my own experience of grappling with myself over whether I am a scientist, and eventually coming to reject the universal utility of the narrow approaches that I rote learned as an ‘apprentice’ scientist. These insights are simply one scientist’s thoughts about being a particular kind of scientist.

Finally, a word about what this book is not. This book is not a negative appraisal of science, climate science or climate scientists. It is my experience of science, climate science and climate scientists. In many cases in the following chapters, I highlight particular examples in the literature, or commentaries, but I emphasise that this is not because I view these studies as wrong, or poor, or ill-considered. It is quite the opposite; I present these as examples of valuable contributions to our understandings of the discipline and explore these specifically to demonstrate that science does not exhaust all knowledge. I discuss this literature in good faith, as a member of this community and as a committed climate scientist. In doing so, I hope that these explorations will be viewed as such, as an affirmative critique.

 

 

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