Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

An Inconvenient Talk

*sigh* A few days ago, I was dragged from my coffee shop by an urgent phone call, begging me to stand in at the last minute for a lecture that needs to be given next week to an advanced undergraduate course in social and political theory, aimed at students currently preparing their honours thesis. The request was presented in terms of the need to have someone discuss the sociology of scientific knowledge – to provide a sort of massive-brush-stroke narrative of Enlightenment degenerating into postwar technocratic myth, the anti-technocratic backlash in critical theory, and then contemporary rapprochements between social theory and science. Although I wince every time I do this sort of “bottled modernity” lecture, I have actually delivered lectures with this particular narrative line in the past, and so the request seemed “do-able” around my extremely packed schedule.

Now, though, I’ve received the course materials and seen how the lecture has been advertised to students, what readings they have been assigned, what their tutorial activities will be. And it turns out that I should have paid more attention to a sort of muttered mention of “you know, global warming sorts of things” when my interlocutor mentioned that the lecture should also include a discussion of rapprochements between social theory and science. As it turns out, as far as the course materials and therefore the students are concerned, this is a lecture on global warming. The students will be watching An Inconvenient Truth after I shut up and send them off to their tutorials. The “point” of the lecture, as far as I can tell, is to talk about the social theory of global warming denialism.

Now, as much as I love lurking the wonderful Real Climate site, I have no particular competence to lecture on the topic of global warming. I have not researched social theoretic interpretations of climate change scepticism. I have no idea what to say. I’ve done some work on parallel forms of imagery in conceptualising the economy and the natural environment over time, but that hardly seems on target for a lecture of this sort. I can talk (possibly endlessly) about capitalism and the compulsive transformation of material nature – on production become a runaway end in itself… But these shreds of competence seem to flutter past the “point” of this lecture…

If you were called on at the last minute to give a lecture on this topic, what sorts of things would you want to say? Any ideas? Anyone? What I’m trying to do is get my head around how to link what I already know, with a narrative structure that might be useful for a lecture of this sort… So any suggestions around which my ideas can begin to crystallise, would be most welcome…

15 responses to “An Inconvenient Talk

  1. Russ May 3, 2008 at 12:34 am

    What an odd thing to request (or to lecture on)…

    The closest thing I can think of is something like this. But that sort of work is a biased political, rather than social interpretation of the relationship of modern science to politics.

    Caricaturing the political argument is easy: one side thinks there is an overwhelming scientific consensus for the need for economic and social transformation towards more sustainable lifestyles, being thwarted by industry shills and political inertia; the other thinks an uncertain and emerging science is being cherry-picked and distorted by alarmist eco-warriers trying to use it to remake society for ideological reasons.

    Me? I’d play the last episode of the Ascent of Man. It has nothing to do with global warming, but it’s good watching, and it would chew some time.

  2. Carl May 3, 2008 at 3:33 am


    My first impulse would be to talk with the students and get them to recapitulate naive notions of what science is, what counts as ‘proof’, etc. See if they are harboring a metaphysical notion of the sorts of truths science can produce. See what they think about the contrast between ‘certainty’ in a metaphysical sense and the ‘construction of robust theories based on probabilistic extrapolations from partial data in dynamic state spaces’. I’m thinking it’s quite likely you can get a little lab experiment in science denial going quite handily, or at least get all sorts of thick descriptions of such to work with. Then the fun is working through the data you’ve collected.

    If you don’t want to get that personal or sneaky, why not just ask them this interesting question – why would people deny global warming? In my experience, the missing moment in theory classes is application. They should have at least a rudimentary sociology of knowledge or at least ideology critique available to them from previous classes, but they may need to be coaxed to work through how to deploy it. This would be genuinely valuable.

    If dialogue is not an option you could think out loud instead. Go in with what you already know and ask yourself the question – why would people deny global warming? Then work through the hypotheses so they can see what you’re doing.

    If you really must lecture conventionally there’s nothing for it but to bone up. If you can get a hold of _How Nature Speaks: The Dynamics of the Human Ecological Condition_, ed. Haila and Dyke, there’s a lot that should help. See also Latour, _We Have Never Been Modern_, which is largely on point.

    Good luck!

  3. Carl May 3, 2008 at 3:54 am

    Sorry, I meant to say “application and generation” above as the missing moments in theory classes.

    Along those lines, I was just perusing your earlier thread on “free floating discourse” and what struck me, yet again, was how ‘magically’ the students think. Like most people most of the time, including us when we’re outside our fields of expertise. When they say “my method is discourse analysis” they might as well be saying “abracadabra.” It’s an invocation of power/knowledge they’ve learned ‘works’ in a real sense in certain contexts. In new contexts it’s worth a try.

    Now the reason they’ve learned this is that this is what their teachers have taught them, by sermonizing the holy incantations and requiring that they be repeated back properly. Which brings me back to ‘doing’ theory with the students rather than ‘lecturing’ theory at them.

  4. Andrew May 3, 2008 at 4:32 am

    Hi NP,
    Whatever you lecture on, I think the most you can be reasonably expected to do under the circumstances is to get somewhere into the ballpark. And for what it’s worth, my own experience with last minute step-in lecturers, is that I’d rather they speak confidently to what they know and/or how they know it than attempt, awkwardly, to carry out a lesson plan that’s not their own.

    In any event, Russ @1 refers you to Chris Mooney; you might also take a peek at the blog of Mooney’s colleague Matthew Nisbet ‘Framing Science’ ( I think there are some problems with what Nisbet does – he analyzes contentious debates over global warming, evolution, etc. are as second-order problems of more or less productive ‘framing’ of the relevant issues in and for the public sphere rather than as first-order debates regarding the truth or falsity of a particular position. But it’s a way in to some of the ongoing debates.

    To get to your question, what would I talk about vis-a-vis global warming denialism, if asked to do so at the last minute? The broad political argument is as stated above and is easy enough to outline, and I suppose to some extent inescapable even in an sociologically-inflected discussion of the topic. But to put the issues on a more abstract plane, I suppose my own preference is to reflect a bit, in somewhat Luhmannian fashion, on the issue of uncertainty and how it’s generated, categorized, and deployed across different social systems and spreads of organization in modern contexts. Scientific research tries to transform unknowns into certainties that in turn triggers uncertainties; so we can say that while there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that GW is ‘real,’ this does not remove but generates new but specific kinds of uncertainties as to explaining cause and predicting consequence, not so say policy and action. These uncertainties are in turn is picked up by different entities – ranging from individual consumers to businesses and corporations to states and international organizations – as the basis for programs and policies with their own sets of normative valences, risks, and contingencies. Running counter to this is the denialist position which trades and exploits upon these kinds of uncertainties to undermine the very idea that science can even be certain with respect to the phenomenon as a whole, and this too generates a fresh supply of political surplus capital that can be picked up to fight or defend ideological and material interests of various kinds in contexts at some remove from the issue of GW itself.

    Anyway, this is rambling. Hope it helps.

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  6. Mick May 3, 2008 at 6:04 am

    Tell them that Global Warming is a postmodern scientific movement aimed at stopping the spread of capitalism by a Millenarian Noble Lie.

  7. N Pepperell May 3, 2008 at 7:03 am

    Hey folks – Thanks for the commiserations and suggestions.

    Carl – I should have mentioned: this is actually to be delivered in one of those massive lecture hall situations – if it were a discussion, I actually wouldn’t be worried: I can lead a discussion on anything. 😉 It’s the whole, stand-in-front-of-people-and-tell-them-something bit that has me worried… (And on lecturing “theory” – I’m with you, I really am…) Also, poking around last night, I’m noticing the lectures for this course have in the past been open to the public, so there’s real potential here for… demonstrating my lack of potential… ;-P At any rate…

    Russ – To be honest, you may be… familiar with this course… So you might have a better sense than most of how this might have been tackled in the past. The focus of the course is political and social theory, so I’m assuming that they aren’t expecting the lecturer to address the issues of climate science. I don’t know if they’re expecting some sort of historical breakdown of how the discussion around global warming and climate science has unfolded over the past few decades – I would think there would be at least several dozen people around here who could probably ad lib that sort of thing fairly well; I’m not one of them. So I keep sort of trying to make sense of what the tacit match is, such that someone would think of me, of my background, in relation to this topic. I suspect I was probably asked for reasons unrelated to my background, but I’m looking to fool myself with a nice rationalisation here… ;-P

    Andrew – I agree. So where’s that ballpark again? 🙂 More seriously: yes, my thoughts had been running along similar substantive lines. My guess had been, given the title and apparent focus of the course, that maybe this lecture had originally been intended as something like a case study in the theme of risk in contemporary social theory (hint to courses reliant on guest lecturers: perhaps let the lecturer decide which case study they would like to use, to discuss a particular body of theory…). To be honest, as major themes in contemporary social theory go, this one has never been a major focus for me. With a bit more warning, I might have enjoyed this lecture as a chance to rectify that. As it is, around other commitments, I’ll have something like half a day to prepare, so… ;-P

    What I’m probably best equipped to talk about is something like the two “environments” (natural and economic) in which we are attempting to operate, how these “environments” have been conceptualised (broad brush) over time, etc… I can say some quasi-useful things on this, but it doesn’t really give me a thread on the climate change scepticism issue, in the way the “risk” discourses would…

    Mick – To be honest, when I was asked to do this, the request was actually that I talk about trends in social theoretic critiques of science – which, again, is a topic I might be half-competent to discuss… My guess now is that this was intended as a sort of challenge: could I discuss how those sorts of critiques might connect in some way with contemporary denialism, etc.

    At any rate… thanks folks 🙂 One way or the other, it will all come crashing down in some sort of heap in a few days…

  8. Carl May 3, 2008 at 7:55 am

    “Two environments” – coupla interesting things there to do. The turfiness of environments – about what ‘environment’ means, what ‘nature’ means, what ‘economy’ means, how ‘they’ are enacted and interacted. How often scientists who have no trouble with the complexity of environmental systems are completely baffled that people active in political-economic systems don’t simply “listen to reason.” But are the scientists not also embedded in political-economic systems? And isn’t treating them as two separate environments a big chunk of the trouble? This also points to the limits of propositional rationalism. These decisions don’t get made in laboratories or philosophy classrooms. Just brainstorming here.

  9. Russ May 3, 2008 at 11:48 am

    np, I think it is widely assumed that you in fact, know everything, which makes you the perfect candidate to lecture on anything.

    I thought it would be that course, but things might have changed a little. When I went through it we didn’t have a topic like this. And in any case, the lectures were optional, being tailored for the masters stream who had a different set of readings. My impression too – though this is true of most guest lectured courses – was that the lectures were often somewhat tangential to the readings, and were mostly there to offer an alternative viewpoint, rather than a conceptual framework for the topic.

    Given what you’ve said, I’m guessing climate change was chosen as one of those “contemporary issues” students are already familiar with, and the readings chosen without a particularly clear idea of how they meshed with the actual topic (or perhaps even what the ‘actual’ topic is). Perhaps it is better to ignore that and go with your gut. The students will make links from whatever you say (or so I keep telling myself) so a broad brush background lecture on the historical relationship of science to social and political theory (or whatever suits your competency on the day) would be as good a setting for the tutorials as any other.

  10. N Pepperell May 4, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    Yeah, but see Russ, if that’s how people perceive me, then we need to change that, don’t we: you’ve seen me try to teach things I emphatically don’t know – come on – spread it around!!

    You’re probably right that the lecture and the class can be… loosely coupled… I think I had been counting on using the course materials to sort of work out some points of connection with what the students might already know, so that option is out… And I’m a bit worried about taking flak for going over the students’ heads if I stick too close to how I might talk for one of my own courses… At any rate…

    Carl – Many thanks for that – and just to keep brainstorming. What I had also been thinking (but this can really stretch things for this sort of class) was that there is a strange element of historical periodisation in the metaphors used to talk about economic and natural “environments” – so, on one level, there is a tension and a conflict between the two “realms”, but on another level, there is a common history in which our thinking about both unfolds – I’m speaking in a very crude way here: ambitious “modernist” interventions into the natural environment give way to fears that the environment is a system whose operations we might disturb if we muck around too much – ambitious Keynesian interventions into the market give way to fears that we disturb *that* environment if we muck around too much… etc. But this is… rather abstract, in a sense…

    I also can’t help but think a bit of the William Morris line (which I quote everywhere, so apologies for doing it again) – the one about fighting and losing the battle, and then having what we fought for coming about in spite of that defeat, and then other people coming along to fight for what we meant, under a different name: when I was originally asked to do this talk, I had been thinking more in that space – how the solutions (theoretical and practical) to the problems of an earlier generation, spiral into the problems we are handing down to the next…

    But this is all still at the random muttering stage. I still have no real idea what I’m going to say… 🙂

  11. Carl May 5, 2008 at 3:39 am

    Ah, periodization. A way I got pretty bogged down in irony with my own work is that I started to look at what I called ‘prehistoric postmodernisms’. That the master narrative of modernity has had a thread of, not negation, but complication running along it from ‘the start’. Descartes had his Pascal, Kant had his Hume, and so on.

    I gave a job talk along these lines once where the people I made the most sense to (they were really excited) were the ancient historians who felt all included for perhaps the first time in their whole careers and wanted to talk with me about the pre-Socratics. And of course at that point I realized that I am really a very bad historian.

    Anyhoo, Morris is a nice call here but if you push that back to Ruskin you really start to get somewhere. The romantics as the guilty conscience of industrialization. And then there’s all Polanyi’s stuff in Great Transformation about society discovering very early on that it had to defend itself against the destructiveness of the market.

    I just know you’re going to end up having a lot of fun with this. Not least if you manage to use the occasion to convince some folks that you don’t know shit… 😉

  12. George Darroch May 5, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    I’d use the lecture as a chance to mention the Foucault lecture; “What is enlightenment?”.


    Turn it back into an investigation of the necessary conditions for us to say positively that a statement is true, and that these truths demand certain actions.

    It seems to me that this is what “An Inconvenient Truth” is about.

    “Kant gives three examples: we are in a state of ‘immaturity’ when a book takes the place of our understanding, when a spiritual director takes the place of our conscience, when a doctor decides for us what our diet is to be.”

    And secondly:

    It strikes me as a film that asks us to put aside the realities of the present condition (that decisions about the climate are made by those with priorities of the profit motive and holding power). Instead, Gore imagines ‘green capitalism’, and empowered consumers.

    This entails an obvious consequence: that criticism is no longer going to be practiced in the search for formal structures with universal value, but rather as a historical investigation into the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying.

    That way you can avoid climate change and talk about Kant 😉

    I should add that I’m still working out my ideas about Kant and Foucault – I’m receptive to criticism.

  13. N Pepperell May 5, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    Hey George – To be honest, the “What Is Enlightenment” piece is one of the things I had originally thought of discussing, when I had been thinking of the lecture as something more general about debates over the sciences – and this may indeed be where the talk goes, since time is rapidly dwindling, and ideas for the talk are not commensurately expanding 🙂

    Hey Carl – Yes, it should be a good opportunity to disabuse a few people of some ideas, while abusing myself in the process… ;-P (I’m meant to meet my supervisor tomorrow – he is the… responsible party for this situation – and am planning on asking how many people are expected to attend. If it’s anything 70 or below, I’m somewhat tempted still to turn it into a discussion… Although the venue is lousy for that purpose…) Your proposal above actually sounds like something I wanted to do for a planning theory course I used to teach here – I didn’t follow through on it ultimately, as other people needed to be able to teach into it as well, and I couldn’t convince people of the contemporary relevance of romanticism… 😉 I should still have materials knocking around from that, though…

    I’ve been buried in marking, and so have just been letting the lecture concept sit like a vague feeling of unease in the back of my mind – something usually manages to crystallise out of this… Of course, there are always exceptions… 😉

  14. Carl May 5, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    Speaking of romanticism, I notice you’re picked up the Aussie “I’m meant.” I always wonder who the meaner is, but that sense of cosmic purpose must be quite pleasant… 😉

  15. N Pepperell May 5, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    I assumed that my supervisor was the meaner 🙂

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