Draft research design paper introduction

2006-05-19

in M.Phil thesis, Oxford, Politics, Science, The outdoors, Writing

Preamble

‘Policy making’ can be understood as the application of judgment to problems, on the part of those empowered to make choices that will affect the matters in question. Global environmental policy making, in particular, involves heightened difficulties related to the process of acting upon the world. Firstly, with regards to such large and complex matters as climate change and the management of ecosystems, our understanding of the objective nature of the world is uncertain. This applies both to the functioning of the natural world in the absence of specific human prompts and to the impact that choices made by human beings and organizations will have within the context of natural processes. On the one hand, for instance, we have an imperfect understanding of the functioning of food webs in the absence of human involvement. On the other, we have an incomplete understanding of the effects of pesticide use on those processes.

The major vehicle through which questions about the nature of the world and the consequences of human action are accessed is science. ‘Science’ exists as a collection of methodologies, epistemic communities, and ideals. While the role of science as an entity involved in policy making may seem initially straightforward, complexities arise rapidly. Crucially, these involve the balance between making judgments about ontological questions under circumstances of uncertainly and the balance of making judgments between alternative courses of action. On one hand, for example, scientists can assess the distribution of fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests conducted above islands in the Pacific; on the other, groups of concerned scientists can call for the discontinuation of such tests.

The perceived appropriateness of each of those roles, on the part of scientists, is reflective of the credibility of scientists as individuals and members of communities and organizations, as well as the political understandings that exist about the relationship between expert knowledge and power. All viable environmental policies must be created in light of existing and emerging expert knowledge, but the question of arbitration between descriptive and prescriptive claims is one that raises fundamental issues about how science and policy do, can, and should relate.

The question

This thesis will examine the relationship between science and global environmental policy making on two conceptually separable but intertwined levels. It will so so firstly on the practical level of how environmental science and scientists have been involved in the development of laws and institutions and secondly at the more theoretical level of the understood relationship between the actual communities and idealized roles of scientists and policy makers. While the general answers for each level will be generated through different methodological means, it can be hoped that the insights generated will be mutually reinforcing.

In order to engage with the practical questions of how science has affected policy making, this thesis will examine two case studies: the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The first can be seen as an example of a mechanism where a scientific understanding emerged of the issue in question and a reasonably effective legal regime for its mitigation emerged. The second example demonstrates a situation in which, for reasons which shall be examined, a similar progression from issue identification to effective policy action has not taken place. The contrast between the cases will hopefully allow for the isolation of important variables, on the basis of the comparative study of preparatory documentation and the first-hand impressions of the participants.

The theoretical component of this thesis will use the controversy surrounding the publication of Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist in 2001 as a starting point for addressing the internal debate within the scientific and policy communities about the role that science and scientists should play in the making of decisions that entail both potentially enormous costs and equally serious risks. The theoretical discussion will also involve the examination of the secondary literature on the philosophy of science, as well as the relationship of science and policy in related fields: such as global health and development studies.

The thesis will consider the competing hypotheses that the general understanding of science as a descriptive adjunct to the prescriptive policy making process is broadly valid, that is is overly simplistic given the multifaceted nature of the epistemic communities involved, and that it might be a fundamentally inappropriate way of representing a corpus of thinking, institutions, and individuals which is actually incapable of operating without concealed normative maneuverings. These possibilities will be assessed through consideration of the examples listed above, as well as the analysis of primary and secondary documentation.

See also: Research design essay planning (15 May 2006)

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Sox First May 20, 2006 at 1:47 am

Climate change denier Exxon Mobil has gone on the offensive, claiming it spent
more than $3 billion last year on expense related to the environment. But at the same time, it’s funding a campaign to upstage Al Gore’s film on climate change. For all its rhetoric, Exxon Mobil is bankrolling ads questioning the impact of climate change.

Read more about it at: link

Anonymous May 20, 2006 at 11:44 am

“On one hand, for example, scientists can assess the distribution of fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests conducted above islands in the Pacific; on the other, groups of concerned scientists can call for the discontinuation of such tests.”

An even better example is climate change. When scientists cannot say with any real certainty what the effects will be, how can they tell people to do something as general as reduce nearly all forms of energy usage?

tristan.laing May 20, 2006 at 5:41 pm

Response to Milan.

Conviction (my own): the language we use to make assertions is reflective of assumptions in our thought which have substantial impact on our thinking, and this impact is of interest beyond philosophy departments.

“Global environmental policy making, in particular,
involves heightened difficulties related to the process of acting upon the
world.”

Here you define the term “world”, which is a particularly important one for environmental politics. There are two assumptions here: Firstly you’ve set up “the world” as something which we would be “acting upon”. The world is “objective”, which means it is the kind of thing which stands passively over-against active subjects who inquire about it, and act upon it. Secondly, this kind of world is something like a set of things in the world. But another meaning of “world” is a certain set of assumptions you make about reality, which allows reality to show itself to you in a specific way. You will encounter this in Kuhn, who at one point says that scientists who embrace different paradigms, “live in different worlds”. Kuhn, as I understand him, doesn’t understand the depth of his own thought here though because he understands the world as objective, as some set of physical objects which humans can inquire about and act upon. The other meaning of world would be active – and not in the sense that it has violent volcanoes (although this is certainly a sort of refutation of the objective earth as well), but meaning that the world, as something outside humans, plays an active role in its self showing, or disclosure to human beings. Most scientists scientists think they think this way – they are realists, not idealists, (the world is not all in their head), and yet Kuhn’s analysis proves that assumptions contained seemingly in their heads determine their world. So the choice remains between, even after Kuhn’s insight, thinking of the world as an objective set of facts which is determined as a world for us by our own internal knowledge about it, or thinking of the world as something which discloses itself to us, and thinking those assumptions Kuhn was so good at pointing out as “paradigms” as not simply “in our heads” but as part of the world’s disclosure of itself to us, in which it itself plays the active role.

I understand that was a bit dense, I’m sorry if it was too out there for you. Don’t worry, I’ve got some better stuff.

Hmm, you seem to know *for certain* what science is. Not that I think you are wrong, but I think further study will problematize that question for you.l

You used “ontological” perfectly.

“The perceived appropriateness of each of those roles, on the part of
scientists, is reflective of the credibility of scientists as individuals
and members of communities and organizations, as well as the political
understandings that exist about the relationship between expert knowledge
and power.”

You might want to consider that the perceived appropriateness of science in assessing the environment is also reflective of the credibility of science as a whole, which is to say both as a single whole community of scientists, but more importantly, and as you previously mentioned, “The major vehicle through which questions about the nature of the world and
the consequences of human action are accessed”.

Thesis:

first question: that’s pretty much your territory, although there is a huge literature on the inverse of that question I’m somewhat familiar with, namely the question, “is democracy the best political system for the progress of science”. Which was obviously a very important question during the space race, but I’m sure you’re already somewhat familiar with that, at least anecdotally. Probably not relevant to this study at all.

second question: I think treating “science” as homogeneous blob here will hurt you. There are ongoing questions in science about whether criticisms of science can be made from outside the scientific discipline, and often those criticisms are made on issues precisely where scientists have sway with policy makers. (This isn’t surprising – it’s just what you’d expect!) For example, when scientists do a study which “proves” that blacks are more violent than whites – are feminist and sociological critiques of the scientific study valid when they point out such things as the study did overview sampling of people who had committed violent crimes, then plotted that against the racial profile of the community and looked for deviation – not recognizing the racist bias of the courts, or even adjusting for the fact that rich folk can hire better lawyers.

So, I don’t think that you can study the idealized role of science in policy making without studying the idealized workings of science when it is making its policy making assertions.

I hope those helped somewhat

Milan May 21, 2006 at 12:45 am

Tristan,

First off, I really appreciate such an elaborate response. I am glad that you have been so willing to help keep this thesis from being a philosophical travesty, as my ignorance risks making it.

The most important bit, for right now

Are the problems you outline generally problems with the thesis plan, as stated, or issues that need to be taken into account over the course of writing a thesis on the basis thereof? Keep in mind that the purpose here is mostly to prove that I have a viable question to answer and some legitimate approach to doing so.

Re: the world

Problematizing ‘world’ is tricky for me. It seems dangerously close to the eternally mocked statement by former President Clinton about the meaning of the word ‘is.’ Almost everyone I would be talking to, reading, and interacting with in the writing of this thesis will automatically subscribe to the ‘world as a thing out there we do stuff to and have stuff done to us by’ perspective. There are leopards out there that die when we burn down their habitat and sometimes eat us when they get the chance.

It’s not too “out there” for me, surprisingly, but I really don’t know what I could say about it, except to make the above assumption explicit.

Re: science

Understanding what science is, from different perspectives and in the context of environmental policy making, is clearly an essential part of this project. The very rough definition above is meant to be both inclusive and comprehensible. The differences between scientists, scientific organizations, scientific methods, and science – whatever it may be – are likewise of crucial importance.

Re: the questions

The first question is really important because:

a) It is easily defensible as reasonably mainstream IR
b) I can answer it reasonably easily, even if I never figure out the philosophy
c) I can apply a reasonably “rigorous” methodology to it, based on process tracing and established ideas about bureaucratic politics.

I agree that science obviously cannot be understood homogeneously. I think the idea that scientists have of it is really important – not least because of mechanisms like peer review – but I am definitely going to grapple with some of the issues they raise. They are absolutely fundamental to the external credibility of science and scientists as a body.

Anonymous May 21, 2006 at 1:22 am

An essential item for your bibliography and research is obviously Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

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