the “house of cards” house of cards


For all my skepticism toward most “climate skepticism,” I find the case of Judith Curry very interesting. This recent post at her blog Climate Etc. repeatedly resorts to metaphors like “‘Alice down the rabbit hole’ moments” and “bucket[s] of cold water being poured over my head” to describe her experiences venturing outside the warm world of academic climate science to one that’s exposed to the harsh winds of public and media scrutiny. The post includes an account of her journey from mainstream climate scientist to one who is “sadder and wiser as a result of the hurricane wars [that followed the publication of an article published in the aftermath of Katrina], a public spokesperson on the global warming issue owing to the media attention from the hurricane wars, more broadly knowledgeable about the global warming issue, much more concerned about the integrity of climate science, listening to skeptics, and a blogger (for better or for worse).”

In recounting her story, Curry writes:

“During this period, I was comfortably ensconced in the ivory tower of academia, writing research papers, going to conferences, submitting grant proposals. I was 80% oblivious to what was going on in terms of the public debate surrounding climate change.

“This all changed on September 14, 2005, when I participated in a press conference on our forthcoming paper that described a substantial increase in the global number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes. The unplanned and uncanny timing of publication of this paper was three weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. While global warming was mentioned only obliquely in the paper, the press focused on the global warming angle and a media furor followed. We were targeted as global warming alarmists, capitalizing on this tragedy to increase research funding and for personal publicity, a threat to capitalism and the American way of life, etc.

“At the same time, we were treated like rock stars by the environmental movement. Our 15 minutes stretched into days, weeks and months. Hurricane Katrina became a national focusing event for the global warming debate. We were particularly stung by criticisms from fellow research scientists who claimed that we were doing this “for the money” and attacked our personal and scientific integrity. We felt that one scientist in particular had crossed the line and committed a series of fouls, and this turned the scientific debate into academic guerrilla warfare between our team and the skeptics that was played out in the glare of the media. This “war” culminated in an article published on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, “Debate shatters the civility of weather science” on Feb 2, 2006 . . . This article became a catharsis for the hurricane research community, that engendered extensive email discussion among scientists on both sides of the public debate. We did an email version of a “group hug” and vowed to stop the guerilla warfare.

“I had lost my bearings in all of this, and the Wall Street Journal article had the effect of a bucket of cold water being poured over my head.”

To someone familiar with the sociology of controversial science, none of this should be very surprising. Climate science has become a paragon of controversial science, less because of its inherent difficulties and complexities — which might be the case with something like, say, parapsychology — as because of its intense politicization and the political and economic stakes it has come to represent. It’s understandable that for a scientist not used to dealing with the politics of such polarizing topics, suddenly having to face them can be shocking. It’s also understandable that as one’s audience changes — for instance, as Curry begins to correspond online with climate “skeptics” — one’s intellectual coordinates might correspondingly shift so that things that were previously in the background and ignorable (such as any sense of tension between Curry’s own views and the IPCC “consensus”) might become magnified to a degree that overcompensates for the previous state (so that this tension comes to seem oppressive, and sloughing off that tension comes to seem liberatory).

This is a scientist narrating her personal story, and it’s a story in which the world is carved into two blocs, and working one’s way between them constitutes something like a heroic act. It all reminds me of Jodi Dean’s wonderful book about UFO beliefs in America. Once one slips down the rabbit hole into the world of alien abductions, or the world in which evidence for alien craft is all around us, or, for that matter, into any culturally contained world that defines itself over and against another one — parapsychology, Mayan 2012 apocalypticism, climate denialism, or even (under certain conditions) climate changeism, not that these are all equivalent of course — one has entered a world with invisible walls, walls that are (invisibly) covered with the symbols of the community that lives inside them. To walk in and out of the walls of rival and incommensurable communities — which I think is a fair description of the climate-believer and climate-denialist camps — is disorienting and perhaps even psychosis-inducing. No matter how well one may be trained as a scientist, this kind of border-crossing can be more akin to border-crossing of the shaman than to anything a normal, conventionally socialized modern individual typically faces. Which is why it’s so difficult to do.

Reading Curry’s blog can occasionally be annoying (though not nearly as annoying as reading some of the commenters), but at other times it can be quite refreshing. This piece on frames and narrative rewards a close read. Her pitting the IPCC against Fred Singer’s NIPCC (the “party of no” to the IPCC’s “yes, we can”) seems to commit the same error that popular media do when they pit a climate scientist against a climate skeptic, as if the two are the same sort of thing, equal and opposite forces between which we must steer our ship. But she makes some very good points, and treating the logic of the arguments in terms of its overall contours (or metaphorical frames) — the IPCC’s “jigsaw puzzle” analogy (where if you take away one piece, such as the famous “hockey stick diagram”, the rest of the puzzle is still mostly the same) versus the skeptics’ “house of cards” analogy (where if you take away one piece, the whole construct collapses) — is very insightful.

But while she admits that “The puzzle frame is better suited to the complexity of the problem,” and much of her argument in the article is precisely about the complexity of climate science, she still seems to want to carve out her own middle ground as “Judge Judy” arbitrating between two equal and opposed (and equally limited) sides. It doesn’t seem to occur to her here that the “house of cards” analogy may itself be a house of cards, one hasn’t had to withstand the hurricane-force winds of scrutiny that the climate science “consensus” has been subjected to. While that balancing strategy might make Judge Judy look fair in the public eye, it won’t fly with the majority scientific community. So they — or the journalists who write articles about them, at least — will continue to use words like “heretic” in describing her (it’s a catchy frame), and she will descend further into the rabbit hole of being one. We become what we are in part because of what our rivals say about us, and once you’ve climbed out of your original rabbit hole into another one, or even into the space between two opposing ones, the temptation to identify with that space, and against the other(s), becomes too sweet. We are, after all, human.

Simultaneously posted to Immanence.

About Adrian Ivakhiv

Adrian Ivakhiv is a professor of environmental thought and culture at the University of Vermont.
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