Friday, January 28, 2011

What the Climategate E-mails Tell Us about Communication in the Sciences

A very interesting study by Marianne Ryghaug and Tomas Moe Skølsvold in the September 2010 issue of International Studies in the Philosophy of Science treats the Climategate non-scandal as an example of how scientists communicate with one another on complex and controversial issues. Access to the full article (here) requires a subscription, but here is the abstract:
This article analyses 1,073 e-mails that were hacked from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in November 2009. The incident was popularly dubbed 'Climategate', indicating that the e-mails reveal a scientific scandal. Here we analyse them differently. Rather than objecting to the exchanges based on some idea about proper scientific conduct, we see them as a rare glimpse into a situation where scientists collectively prepare for participation in heated controversy, with much focus on methodology. This allows us to study how scientists communicate informally about framing propositions of facts in the best possible way. Through the eyes of science and technology studies, the e-mails provide an opportunity to study communication as part of science in the making across disciplines and laboratories. Analysed as 'written conversation' the e-mails provide information about processes of consensus formation through 'agonistic evaluations' of other scientists' work and persuasion of others to support one's own work. Also, the e-mails contain judgements about other groups and individual scientists. Consensus-forming appeared as a precarious activity. Controversies could be quite resilient in the course of this decade-long exchange, probably reflecting the complexity of the methodological challenges involved.
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