Reading Roger Pielke Jr’s review of David Wallace-Wells’ new book The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future got me thinking about a process described by Pielke Jr as the transformation of “carefully caveated scenarios of the future” produced by scientific communities into “most likely futures” (or related future-oriented claims). He writes:
The scientific community produces carefully caveated scenarios of the future [about climate change, its future effects and mitigation options], ranging from the unrealistically optimistic to the highly pessimistic. Media coverage tends to emphasise the most pessimistic scenarios and in the process somehow converts them from worst-case scenarios to our most likely futures. Wallace-Wells has assembled the best of this already selective science to paint a picture containing “enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic”.”
Pielke Jr’s claims got me thinking about my own research on future-oriented inquiry that was led by staff from CSIRO (Australia’s peak research/science agency) and other research I’m currently doing which I believe points to a need for sociological approaches to anticipatory knowledge. Also relevant to this topic is academic literature like Karen Cerulo’s book Never Saw it Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst.
In my research on future-oriented inquiry I noted that people from scientific communities (or academic contexts) do tend to be quite careful when to comes to producing scenarios and detailing related caveats. There are exceptions, but often long reports detail the myriad assumptions that have been made and why, modelling limitations and so on (along with the results) or they’re included in an accompanying methodology report. However, I also observed that when it comes to the use, appraisal and the dissemination of the outputs from such forward-looking studies and exercises these caveats are often less prominent and sometimes they are completely absent. More broadly, I observed related changes as knowledge (or a claim) “travels” from one setting to another, such as from a knowledge production setting to a context of use such as a policy-making setting.
Building a little on such observations and Pielke Jr’s comments about climate knowledge and discourse, there are interesting questions to consider such as: How and why do claims full of caveats (about possible futures) lose their caveats, and with what consequences?
Below I briefly consider some potential lines of inquiry and how they might be elaborated by drawing on sociology of knowledge perspectives. This may help to understand both the process highlighted by Pielke Jr and related social and cognitive processes that influence thought and action on sustainability issues and associated ‘transitions’.
Drawing on the interesting work of Clark et al (2010), one relevant sociological approach to ‘knowledge’ places particular attention on “what is or is not taken to be true by a particular individual or group” (Clark et al, 2010) and why (instead of whether or not the knowledge in question is true). This is not to say that whether claims are justified true beliefs isn’t important – it’s just a different perspective. From this perspective we can conceptualise ‘anticipatory knowledge’ as follows: anticipatory knowledge is “an idea or belief [about the future] that someone, whether an individual or a community, takes to be true, or at least relatively more true than other kinds of statements, and therefore of sufficient character to guide his, her, or their reasoning or […] action” (Clark et al, 2010).
This is an interesting perspective because it suggests we pay close attention to how and why actors appraise claims – the evaluation of claims – and factors that influence this.
Over the past few years a big change in my own views is that I now believe that people tend to find it difficult to objectively evaluate claims. I also believe that these difficulties can be accentuated by social factors that influence claim assessment activities (though such difficulties may be reduced by social factors that enhance objectivity).
Related to this in my doctoral work I paid close attention to how and why future-oriented claims get mobilised by actors and under what conditions. For example, in the cases I studied, I found that actors often mobilise such claims to bolster their arguments and often do so selectively in the context of ongoing policy debates or strategy debates. Moreover, I found that this influences both what claims they paid most attention to and how they evaluated them. Key causal mechanisms like biased assimilation, selective attention and confirmation bias can be influential. Context also matters, such as the social or institutional contexts in which these knowledge practices occur.
This is relevant to questions about how or why less caveated understandings of the future may emerge or solidify over time. In the cases I studied, I observed that often when claims were put to use by actors the relevant caveats were given less attention. Rather, in such situations the main focus is why the claim supports other propositions (e.g. regarding a proposed policy or other desired action). Additionally, there are incentives to direct attention away from caveats (or at the very least minimise the attention given to them) if the future-oriented claim in question is perceived to support a desired action.
What this suggests as a high-level preliminary hypothesis is that as future-oriented claims move from their site(s) of production to contexts of use they will often lose caveats. Additionally, to the extent that this occurs, subsequent uses of de-caveated claims by other actors may reinforce this transformation.
The cognitive factors I’ve alluded to also require greater attention. As suggested above these include cognitive foibles and limitations which can influence the ability of human beings to objectively evaluate claims. But what I have in mind here is what Crisp (2015) terms basic “psychological drives” which may place important limits on our capacity to engage with the “carefully caveated scenarios of the future” referred to by Pielke Jr. For instance, Crisp (2015) refers to our “insatiable need to feel certain” (p.23) and basic cognitive orientations towards predicting the future and building related (mental) models of the world. This points to cognitive barriers to engaging fully with uncertainty.
This suggests that sociological inquiry can be enhanced by a micro-foundation informed by cognitive sciences. A related hypothesis is that claims can lose their caveats because we’re cognitive unsuited to engaging with “carefully caveated scenarios of the future”. Here it’s worth noting that anecdotally practitioners frequently talk about challenges that people and organisations often have with engaging with multiple futures (as per an alternative scenarios approach) and tendencies to fall back on a predictive mindset.
Additional sociology of knowledge perspectives are suggested by Mark Erickson’s book Science, Culture and Society. Erickson outlines several relevant ideas that draw on the distinction between esoteric scientific communities and ‘exoteric communities’ and on the related concept of “thought communities”. Of particular relevance to the present discussion is his distinction between sites of production (he terms these esoteric scientific thought communities) and sites of assimilation (which he terms ‘exoteric thought communities’).
Erickson discusses climate science in detail and argues that “the meaning of formal scientific knowledge [about climate change] […] alters considerably on this passage from esoteric thought community – its site of production – to exoteric thought community” (p.224). Such evolving meanings are relevant to how claims full of caveats may lose these caveats, as are the assimilation processes that occur in exoteric thought communities.
Erickson further discusses crucial issues to do with societal expectations of scientific knowledge and related disparities shaping engagement with such knowledge:
Climate change science relies to a large extent on probabilities, but the story we tell ourselves is that science provides certainties. The disparity between these two narratives – the esoteric narratives of likelihoods, probabilities and error bars on the one hand, and the exoteric expectation of a story of truth and absolutes on the other – is difficult to bridge, particularly when science communication is so heavily distorted by expected tropes and stereotypes” (p.225)
Thus, such a perspective points to underlying tensions (in climate science and the use of such knowledge) regarding the desire for “definite statements about what is definitely going to happen and how we should deal with it” (Erickson, 2015, p.225) and related flawed images and expectations of science. Thus, a sociology of knowledge needs to consider the construction of science and scientists and how this influences these issues.
To understand the transformation of “carefully caveated scenarios of the future” into different kinds of knowledge claims it may therefore be necessary to examine society and the relationship between science and society. This suggests additional hypotheses for key social factors that can influence the translation of formal scientific (anticipatory) knowledge claims into forms of understandings that exhibit greater certainty.
Crisp, R. 2015, The Social Brain: How Diversity Made the Modern Mind, Robinson, London, UK.
Erickson, M. 2016, Science, Culture and Society: Understanding Science in the 21st Century, Second edn, Polity Press, Cambridge UK; Malden, USA.