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Climategate: the role of the social sciences

A Springboard Commentary to this article was published on 31 May 2013

A Springboard Commentary to this article was published on 16 May 2013


As has been widely documented, lavishly funded media campaigns by political and financial elites and corporations with vested interests against climate policy are a central instigator of the climate backlash and a threat to democratic processes. However, it would behoove the environmental coalition, including sympathizing academics, to reflect on how they help create conditions that enable and magnify the impact of the backlash campaigns and incidents such as Climategate. This editorial argues that prevalent idealized understandings of science increase public vulnerability to backlash campaigns, and that academic analysts reinforce these understandings when they avoid to perform critical analyses of the science and scientists promoting concern about climate change.

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  1. Two years later, a similar anonymous leak of emails involving the same scientists was similarly made public through blogs, similarly accompanied by conspiratorial framings. A representative of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute representative interpreted the leaked emails from the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University as “strong evidence that a small group of scientists centered around [the university] were engaged in a conspiracy to provide a scientifically misleading assessment of the case for catastrophic global warming.” (Gillis and Kaufman 2011).

  2. One independent investigation was completed by the U.K. House of Commons (House of Commons 2010) and two others were commissioned and paid for by the University of East Anglia itself.

  3. Sociologist Robert K. Merton’s norms include the norm of organized skepticism, characterized by the notion that all ideas must be tested through rigorous, structured community scrutiny; the norm of universalism, which holds that legitimate knowledge is impersonal and truth claims should be evaluated independently of extra-scientific factors; the norm of communalism, according to which data is to be shared fully and openly (secrecy being its antithesis); and the norm of disinterestedness, defined as a passion for knowledge, idle curiosity, and altruistic concern to benefit humanity. Merton recognized deviations from the norm of universalism but argued that the norms work to delegitimize such deviations.

  4. For the sake of ease of expression, my references to “social science” and “social scientists” in this article are meant to include scholars trained in the humanities who are doing social studies of climate change science and politics.

  5. The operating definitions of “contrarian” and “mainstream” climate scientists here follows the schemata developed by Myanna Lahsen (2012).

  6. For examples of contrarian institutions’ discourses to this effect, see the Heartland Institute conference (June-July 2011),

  7. In popular use, the term “global warming” has come to serve as short-hand for ACC (Hulme 2009), and this is also the most plausible intended meaning and interpretation of the above statements.

  8. In Rosenberg et al.’s study, 56 % of climate scientists surveyed expressed the opinion that climate scientists understand global climate change very well, but 41 % opined that they understand it only moderately well. Research by sociologist Dennis Bray (2010) similarly identifies large support among scientists for the consensus position represented by the IPCC, but an absence of unanimity. For instance, only 31.9 % of polled scientists who had participated in IPCC activities expressed no doubt with regards to the IPCC consensus pertaining to temperature changes. With regards to changes in sea level change and extreme events, only a little less than half of the scientists polled considered the IPCC reports to reflect a consensus.

  9. A subsequent section on the same page (p. 16) calls for research which “gets at the heart of the relationship between the science of climate change and its translation into public understanding and policy formation” Mirroring the above-mentioned preceding section it specifies the need to study “the influence of discourse and debates about scientific findings in the United States and abroad,” not the possibility nor necessity of studying the influence of discourse and debates on scientific findings and assessments. Needed research explicitly mentioned here would explore “the social processes by which the issue of global climate change emerged and evolved in public discourse” and “the role of experts in governments and non-governmental organizations.” A discerning reader might interpret that to include research on the social processes that have shaped experts’ science and assessments, but that is not explicitly stated nor an obvious reading. Both of the sections discussed here also use the term “denial” to describe questioning of the reality of ACC (“Emerging work in this area asks, what are the social and psychological factors that cause individuals to internalize, react to, or deny the realities of global climate change?” and “How do policy responses to global climate change work when analyzed in conjunction with the sociology of denial?”).

  10. See, for instance, presentations at the July 2011 Heartland Institute conference, accessible at

  11. The symmetry principle is one of the most influential tenets in the sociology of science. It was proposed to overcome the tendency in historical accounts to explain the success of successful theories by referring to their “objective truth”, or inherent “technical superiority.” See Pinch and Bijker (1984).


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Correspondence to Myanna Lahsen.

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Lahsen, M. Climategate: the role of the social sciences. Climatic Change 119, 547–558 (2013).

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  • Climate Policy
  • Climatic Research Unit
  • Climate Science
  • Anthropogenic Climate Change
  • Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity