The obvious answer

Climate science appears to be just like any other science. At least, this is the conclusion from a fresh publication by Marianne Ryghaug and Tomas Moe Skjølsvold (“The global warming of climate science: Climategate and the construction of scientific facts” in International studies in the philosophy of science). This finding is not news to the research community, but this analysis still hints that everything is not as it should be – because why would anyone report from a crime scene if the alleged crime has not even been committed?

The background of this story (the “crime scene”) is a ‘Science and technology Study’ (STS) by Ryghaug and Skjølsvold, who attempted to make some sense out of the leaked e-mails from CRU for clues on how climate scientists work. I must admit that I sometimes see some irony when reading texts from social sciences about the ‘tribalism’ of natural sciences. For instance, many of them use a very formalised language that can be hard to follow, while they describe different parts of the science community as ‘tribes’ with its own norms, codes, and dialects.

One real difference between the ‘tribes’ of natural scientists and STS scholars may be the perception of ‘facts’: Ryghaug and Skjølsvold conclude that “scientific facts are made and not just discovered”. In contrast, I think most natural scientists feel that facts are facts, whether we know about them or not. Nuclear reactions and atoms were real, even before people knew about them. But Ryghaug and Skjølsvold’s assertion that “Fact-construction relies on persuasive skills” may give some people the wrong idea about how things work, perhaps ironically a bit like the word “trick” in the CRU e-mails.

Denial or ignorance?

Our scientific knowledge embodies the most convincing description we have of our universe, so I think they really mean that science is a ‘knowledge construction’, which involved publishing in the scientific literature, testing, review, etc. It seems to me that ‘facts’ for them refers to ‘established facts’ in the scientific knowledge. And construction is in a sense a bit like traditional mathematics which to a greater degree is based on a logical construction rather than sudden discoveries (the final answer sometimes can be seen as a discovery nevertheless).

But facts are based on discoveries too – for sure! Like the discovery of penicilin, evolution by natural selection, the DNA, and the photoelectric effect. After the discovery, findings are interpreted, and the new knowledge must find a place in the framework based on all other knowledge since we like to think that our universe is self-consistent.

Ryghaug and Skjølsvold argue that science is about communication, discussions, and persuasion. That may come as a surprise to some people, but it is fairly obvious to me. The author of Don’t be such a scientist, Randy Olson, argues that communication is an integral and essential part of sciences that cannot be separated from the objective and analytical aspects. It does a scientist no good at all if their discoveries are not effectively transmitted to the wider community.

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