The quick tour

profile vardyI began a postdoc with the Climate Futures Initiative at Princeton University on February 1, 2016. The project I’m working on is headed up by Michael Oppenheimer and the lead researcher is Jessica O’Reilly. There are other people involved in the project whose input I’ll be receiving along the way. The project consists primarily of an ethnography of expertise in climate science for policy. The general question we are asking is, how do scientific experts make decisions about how to represent climate change for policymakers?

I recently became an officially accredited doctor of philosophy, having defended my dissertation in sociology at Queen’s University, Canada, on November 4, 2015. Brian Wynne was the external examiner. Fortunately he bore with the technological glitches we had on our end with the Skype connection. We even contemplated switching to telephones at some point. It was an amazing experience to have Brian participate in my examination because his work was what turned me on to Science and Technology Studies in the first place, way back when I was writing my MA in sociology (and cultural, social and political thought) at the University of Victoria, Canada, 2005-2007.

I started my MA utterly perplexed by the discordance between scientific reports of climate change and how it was being framed in the mass media. I wanted to take the science of climate change seriously and not have public debates sidetracked by the denialist machine, but I also also didn’t want to accept the model of democratic society that says we must simply accept the authority of experts. That’s one of the reasons I found climate change so interesting. It is known primarily through science, but neither science nor the institutions that harness the authority of scientific expertise can tell us how we as a society should respond. I wrote my MA under the supervision of the brilliant and generous social theorist Peyman Vahabzadeh using the theory of radical phenomenology developed by Reiner Schürmann. I found a tremendous resonance between the epochal critique of radical phenomenology and some of the variants of Science and Technology Studies (STS, a.k.a. the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge). Specifically, I found Brian Wynne’s argument that sociologists should open up issues that are known through science to a broader public debate was just bang on. Here’s the exact quote that hooked me in to STS, from a 2003 article:

My different vision of the proper role of SSK [the sociology of scientific knowledge] here would be to try to articulate what a more inclusive social debate over knowledge and its proper grounds and human purposes should be, and how this would open up spaces, now colonized by existing scientific culture, to collectively negotiable questions of public meaning. (Wynne, 2003)

Look at the nuanced and delicate way Brian phrases the reflexive role that sociologists can play in the politics of expertise and you can see why I was so happy to have him as an examiner of my dissertation. The defence went well. I made a few corrections and handed the whole thing in two days later. (November 6, 2015, just for the record, was a Friday and submitting the result of six years of toil was a pretty good way to start the weekend.)

My dissertation is called The Social Reorganization of Polar Science: Responding to Cryospheric Change in the International Polar Year 2007-2008 and Beyond. The professors who taught me journalism as an undergrad would cry over the length of that title. Basically, I wanted to see how the future of arctic change was being constructed as a horizon against which actions in the present moment are situated. So I used in-depth qualitative interviews, participant-observation, and document analysis to research how a variety of actors understand and are reacting to contemporary circumstances in the Arctic, which are, of course, informed by the impact of climate change.

When I began my PhD in 2009, I initially wanted to contrast the way that the reduction of sea ice was being spun into geopolitical discourses in the immediate moment (through the increased rhetoric of sovereignty over space and resources) with the implications of ice sheets and their potential to contribute to meaningful sea level rise over the next 80 or so years. The response to the impact of climate change on sea ice, it seemed to me, involved the macho posturing of politicians who ramped up national self-interest and the push for territorial control over resources. This was not the kind of politics that I wanted to see in the present moment, let alone a future in which increased sea level rise due to ice sheet disintegration might make hardened boundaries between nation-states even more problematic for masses of humanity.

But one year into my PhD, I discovered the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008 program was wrapping up the world’s largest ever coordinated research program into the Arctic and Antarctica with the call to go “From Knowledge to Action“.  Rather opportunistically, I decided to study how people involved in the International Polar Year — and who were studying a range of things including the impacts of climate change on sea ice and ice sheets — were achieving this task, of going from knowledge to action, as a practical social accomplishment.

There is a whole lot that can be said here, but one thing that should be highlighted is that, unlike pervious International Polar Year efforts, the most recent iteration explicitly included Indigenous knowledge, the social-sciences and the humanities  (the first IPY was in 1882-82 ,the second in 1922-23, and the third, which was called the International Geophysical Year after its scope was expanded beyond the poles, was held in 1957-58). This addition of other ways of knowing added something tremendously intriguing that I wanted to research. That is, if the call to go “From Knowledge to Action” explicitly signals the recognition that science alone is insufficient to inform action, then how would the policymakers and decision-makers involved in the Arctic actually go about filling that gap left by the demise of “linear” model of science-for-policy?

My exploration of this topic brought me into contact with many good-hearted individuals working as policymakers and scientists. As a sociologist, I’ve studied the plurality of ways that the relation between the natural and social worlds can be conceived, so one of the things that I ended up doing in my dissertation is commenting upon the limitations of the discourses that are currently being used to frame social and environmental changes in the Arctic (e.g., social-ecological systems theory, which, owing largely to the legacy of cybernetics, is a repeat of postwar American structural-functionalism). But, as I argued at the 2013 meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science, it was clear to me that many of the scientists and policymakers who deploy this dominant discourse to frame the Arctic as a space of change care deeply about what is going on there, including the implications of climate change for Arctic Indigenous peoples. That’s where things start to get really interesting.

The tension between knowledge of climate change and the dominant discourses used to talk about it points to one of my ongoing areas of interest. But I’ve written enough for this “quick tour”, which is meant to act as an electronic introduction, and its now lunch time, so I’m going to go see what the people at this event hosted by the Multispecies Salon have to say! I will write more about my research interests in subsequent pages.