Analysing attitudes – an account of the first environmental politics meeting

The environmental politics group met on Wednesday the 12th of October to discuss Myanna Lahsen’s (2009) analysis of three prominent physicists who have been active in promoting a sceptical attitude towards climate change within the US government and across the media. According to Lahsen’s analysis the scientist’s background and success in physics is not a coincidence, but rather constitutive of this scepticism. Lahsen describes some of the shared characteristics of physicists and suggests that these attitudes, combined with the decline in funding for pure science and a diminished role for physicists in government since the height of the Cold War, offers a plausible explanation for their outspoken views on the reality of climate change.

During the discussions it became apparent that not all in the group had been persuaded by Lahsen’s argument, and some suggested her analysis was based on a crude depiction of what a physicist is and does, producing an account that is not generalizable to the wider community. This also raised the issue of whether such a personal account of individuals was appropriate. I am less sympathetic towards the last point, the three physicists referred to in the paper have had considerable influence in the US, and their success in promoting a sceptical attitude is largely due to their scientific authority as renowned physicists, which in my view makes this authority a perfectly legitimate object of study. We also discussed the motives for Lahsen’s study and here the context appeared important. In the US there is far greater coverage of sceptical views in the media than in the UK, and this and the lack of political leadership on the issue has created considerable frustration amongst scientists and environmentalists. Most of the time these frustrations are vented across the blogosphere with each camp rubbishing the views of the other, with little attempt to understand why particular cultural groups think the way they do, to which Lahsen’s account may contribute an alternative way of engaging with socio-political positions and the attitudes and perceptions these generate. However, some in the group still felt that the battle over the science and politics of climate change should be based on deliberation over the facts generated by scientific knowledge production.

Further to our discussion, I thought some might be interested in this article about a study undertaken by a group at Berkeley. The study took seriously criticism over the practice of climate science and conduct of climate scientists. Such attacks were particularly vociferous after the publication of emails between climate scientists linked to the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, which called into question the reliability of the unit’s record of warming over the 20th Century. The group at Berkeley, which included physicists, a statistician and only one climate scientist aimed to confront these doubts by conducting its own analysis using the combined methods of the disciplines involved. See:


About Hannah Hughes

I am a lecturer in the School of Law and Politics. My research interests stem from my concern with environmental degradation and include: Climate change; knowledge and power; global environmental politics; environmental security
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