Tag Archives: climategate

Ecology and the Rhetoric of Science

In the previous post, I discussed Thomas Kent in tandem with debates regarding hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). I closed out the post by introducing the idea of ecological “Dead Earth” spectacle as a rhetorical tool and as a consequence of rhetorical practices tied to the ecological movement and the Modern conception of Science. Before I elaborate on that more, I feel I need to discuss what I think is a related subject involving the rhetoric of science, specifically as pertains to the “Climategate” incident.

As discussed in a previous post, the Climategate scandal involved the theft of email correspondence between climate scientists in the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) based out of the University of East Anglia. The emails essentially exposed the sciences to the general public. By laying bare the discourse of scientists as they approached and interpreted scientific data, these letters showed science “at work.” As Ryghaug and Skjølsvold write, the incident illustrates a situation in which  “scientists collectively prepare for participation in a heated controversy” and “communicate informally about how to frame propositions of facts in the best possible way” (“The Global Warming of Climate Science” 288). The emails themselves create a narrative in which these scientists attempts not only to interpret data, but to release that interpretation in the most persuasive way possible. These attempts involve extensive wrangling over the presentation of data, the quality of data and the techniques and methodologies used to handle the data. This, of course,  flies in the face of an established ideology  which still adheres to the “Modern” conception of science, that categorically defines scientists engaging in rhetoric or politics as somehow corrupting the scientific process (see Latour).

This highlights two extreme poles of an artificial binary distinction represented (on one end) by those who engage science as an exploratory interaction phenomena in the world and scientists, and (on the other) by those who view facts as something transcendentally “out there” that surpass our interpretation and essentially speak for themselves. Going back to Latour, we see that scientists are more like “speech prosthesis” in that scientific objects and phenomena speak through the sciences, and in doing so engage politically with the Collective (the Collective being, essentially, the political engagement of everything). This in itself would be fine, if not for the fact that the myth of objective Science promoted by modernity has served as a rhetorical bludgeon for so long. By adhering to the Modern structure of Nature/Culture, the discourse of objective Science finds that its greatest asset is also its greatest weakness: in the situation of Climategate, for example, the Modern rhetoric of the objectivity of Science is turned against the sciences once the curtain is drawn away from the interior of laboratory practices. What was once a “conversation ender” for the forces of rationality and science now becomes a tool of its undermining, in that the actual practices of scientists do not, and cannot, live up to the expectations of “Science.”

This undermining is exemplified in an op-ed piece written for the Wall Street Journal. Bret Stephens (referring to Climategate) decries the aberration of the intermingling of Science and Politics: ” they [climate scientists and supporters] depend on an inherently corrupting premise, namely that the hypothesis on which their livelihood depends has in fact been proved. Absent that proof, everything they represent –including the thousands of jobs they provide—vanishes” (“Climategate: Follow The Money”). What this rock-solid “proof” might actually be in the eyes of some is a bit of a mystery to me, but following Mr. Stephens’ logic, action identifying sources of and dealing with global climate change are inherently corrupt because they have yet to be proven.

Consider fracking in this light. The essential problems, as discussed previously, revolve around pollution and tectonic shifts that (may be!) causing earthquakes. Faced with this accusation, sources in the oil industry and the government have decided not to halt production necessarily but rather to argue regulations and standards. The EPA and those in the Industry have already begun the process of wrangling over legislation and regulation, while certain experts are calling for suspension or halt of fracking activities. The government, however, and specifically the Obama administration, is encouraging the expansion of fracking operations because they create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Long story short, the question then becomes, what if both are right? What do we rely on to make judgements when a particular practice does both positive and negative things? We make value assessments, ascertain what we think the benefits and losses are, and come to a solution. This is the point were the schism between Science and Politics, or more precisely “facts” and “values,” becomes impossible to maintain. The two opposite concerns intermingle in what Alan Gross calls “Remaking the Social Order” (“Starring the Text” 153). The event becomes a cleavage in the social order, such that a chasm widens between competing social values, and re-assessments are made (153).

Within this event, though, are significant rhetorical acts from both sides that seek to address and shape the new order, or what will be. In the case of fracking, what we have is two competing rhetorics; the rhetorics of economy and employment, and the rhetoric of conservation/preservation and crisis.   Discussing the evolution of occupational medicine in the West, Gross points to the growth of a scientific field by way of rhetoric as indicative of this split. Beryllium poisoning due to exposure was noted as early as the 1930s, but by 1980 levels of beryllium in workers had not lowered because standards of exposure were not re-evaluated. Why not? Because the evidence connecting beryllium exposure to cancer was not “persuasive” enough to justify the expenditure of millions of dollars to address (152).

This split of concern reflects a changing of the times, and illustrates the rhetorical nature of scientific inquiry. As social orders change, so do rhetorical assumptions made by audiences. During the schism between two particular ideologies, however, we can see where both coexist. We can follow Kent’s assertion that rhetoric is a “guessing game,” that gets easier to play as time goes on. But it also points to what I might propose is a critique of this model. Because underlying these rhetorical challenges lie general assumptions that do not find themselves at the whim of hermeneutical guesses, at least not entirely. Economics, money and scientific data all play an essential role in rhetorical engagement, both on the part of business and on the part of ecology. When the discussion can become about numbers, then it seems that rhetorical choices become easier to make. Instead, I question what the use of science and economics means in realm of rhetoric. How are people represented by data, such as job numbers, purchasing habits, location, and so on, and how do these affect rhetorical strategies. Furthermore, how does scientific results culled from studies and observations made by scientists work to prop up a rhetorical tactic of economic and ecological disaster, turning statistics into spectacle?

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