After several conversations regarding my article: “The Citizen Scientist“, I am beginning think this may possibly be the most important article I have ever written about the climate debate.
What I suggested is that sceptics can be considered as a community of citizen scientists, people from outside academia with an interest in science, joined together by the internet. We are not “anti-science” but instead an alternative community of scientists that now rivals the “official” community and in some (but not all) areas is beginning to exceed the skill and understanding of the “official” community.
This is a new paradigm in science: that science can exist amongst “the citizens” outside academia and outside the academic controlled communication channels of their journals. This is hard for academics to understand because they have what I described as a ‘closed shop’ culture in academia where largely:
science = academic science.
However, it is not only difficult for them to understand but also extremely threatening. “Outsiders” are beginning to threaten the monopolistic position of academia regarding scientific knowledge and authority. This, I think, goes a long way to explain much of the vitriol and hatred we have experienced from “official” science when even world governments appear to be listening to those outside academia on climate.
(The lack of action by world governments shows that governments are no longer slavishly following the “official” advice and so presumably tentatively acknowledging the credibility of the views of those citizen scientists called sceptics.)
Fundamentally, I think we are seeing a change in the power relationship between academia and outsiders. Before the internet, that relationship was the “master” and “student” and academics were looked to for “the answers”. Now, citizen scientists – empowered by the internet – do not simply accept the answers given by their academic “masters”. Instead the internet allows “citizen scientists” to gain knowledge and develop their own answers.
This is as fundamental a change to academia as internet shopping was to the high street shops. And it is inevitable that this will be worrying to academics because:
“We citizens are no longer students of our academia masters but researchers and even professors in our own right.”
This, I think, is why we keep hearing academia saying they should “communicate better”. What this really means is that they wish to enforce the old power relationship where academic masters spoke and (student) outsiders listened. But that relationship has broken down in climate, and by extension it is likely to break down in many other areas where academia formerly could expect to be listened to as the single source of authority.
And scientific authority is perhaps the single most cherished prize of academia. Because formerly, it could assume that on all matters of science, governments would turn to academia for advice. But that appears to be under threat particularly in regard to the climate where that authority has been severely diminished by their failure to deliver reliable predictions or even admit their failures.
I am old enough to remember when “made in Japan” meant plastic toys that sank in the bath & “made in Britain” meant (was supposed to mean) quality. Within less than a generation, the unthinkable happened and the reputations were reversed.
Science “made in academia” used to be the hallmark of good quality. Now climate science has a very poor reputation.
In contrast, “internet” science has been portrayed (by academia?) as full of fantasy science and conspiracy theories. This is the meme of the attacks from those such as Lewandowsky. But now we are seeing sites specialising in climate (Climate Audit is a clear example) that surpass their academic rivals in rigour and understanding.
What we may be seeing, is that in areas like the climate where there is enough interest and robust informed debate, governments may be more willing to trust “citizen scientists” than what we tend to think as “official” sources.
Is it time to think the unthinkable? That the robust and chaotic exchanges of sceptics are a more credible source of advice to governments than those like the Royal Society?
The growth of “citizen science”, is challenging “official” science, largely as a result of the internet. This is because the internet is making it possible to build a well-informed community outside academia which now challenges it for authority on the subject. And, unless one were to “uninvent” the internet, that community will continue to grow and even flourish and not just on climate. As such we may see “citizen science” increasingly challenging academia for credibility in areas where academia thought it was the only authority on the subject.
This is a paradigm shift: one which is likely to change science and academia perhaps more fundamentally than we can now imagine.