Culture, Science and Uncertainty: Conflicting Positions on Climate Change

EPA Grant Number: GF9500913
Title: Culture, Science and Uncertainty: Conflicting Positions on Climate Change
Investigators: Lahsen, Myanna
Institution: Rice University
EPA Project Officer: Hahn, Intaek
Project Period: August 1, 1995 through January 1, 2000
Project Amount: $23,452
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (1995) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Fellowship - Social Sciences , Environmental Justice , Academic Fellowships


The central purpose of this project is to provide a framework to aid policy-makers' interpretation of conflicting scientific positions on anthropogenic climate change and to inform scientists about influential extra scientific dimensions of their work of which they may not be aware. This project will attempt to fill a void in studies concerning climate change. While the role of extra scientific factors in expert positions on climate modeling and climate change often is recognized, and calls have been made for studies to clarify their dynamics and influence no such in-depth study has yet been done. Research on climate change is dominated by physical sciences, and, with some exceptions the scarce social science research that has been done related to climate change tends to focus on how humans contribute to and are affected by the changes. This project differs significantly from such studies with its focus on how climate change is constructed as a problem by climate scientists in the first place, how these scientists estimate the seriousness of its effects, and the social influences shaping their estimates. The in-depth, ethnographic nature of this study also distinguishes it from the extant preliminary surveys of expert opinion on climate change and investigations into the extra-scientific dimensions of scientific understandings of climate change . The approach adopted here is informed by constuctivist and cultural studies of science. Constructivist approaches focus on the role of social contexts in the creation of knowledge as it is produced by communities with strong commitments to specific socio-cultural and professional practices, assumptions, values, and modes of discourse. Therefore, this study is the result of informed by historical and sociological studies of the role of differently oriented scientists in environmental politics and of how social dynamics have shaped the trajectories of climate-related theories. The ways in which scientific theories and discussions on climate change reflect differences in predispositions related to cultural, social, and professional backgrounds, affiliations, values, and belief-systems will be investigated through data obtained by standard interview and archival methods, as well as participant -observation. The central mechanism for analysis is qualitative and comparative in nature, informed in part by methods of qualitative data analysis described by Werner & Schoepfle (1986). Snowball sampling will work to include the most prominent and influential scientists. The project will also probe scientists' assumptions about the future for insight into value and belief systems, as studies have suggested how future images reveal assumptions about humans' ability, or lack thereof, to influence and control the natural environment and about the possibility and desirability of social change. Ethnographic study of environmental values in American culture will also be helpful in the selection and formulation of interview questions; their study proved how best to select and word interview questions about values to obtain meaningful responses. Analyses of rhetoric provide insight into how to adjudicate among competing values, prescriptions, or knowledge claims, through considerations of how culture, politics, power, and ideology influence the discourses of science.

Supplemental Keywords:

RFA, Economic, Social, & Behavioral Science Research Program, Scientific Discipline, Air, Environmental Chemistry, Chemistry, climate change, Air Pollution Effects, Analytical Chemistry, decision-making, Atmospheric Sciences, Sociology, Atmosphere, Social Science, Economics & Decision Making, Environmental History, environmental monitoring, policy making, climate studies, conflicting positions on climate changes, social influences on scientists, uncertainty, conflicting positions on climate change, interpretation of conflicting positions, culture, Global Climate Change

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 1996
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  • 1999
  • Final