Socially constructed silence? Protecting policymakers from the unthinkable.

Hoggett, Paul, Randall, Rosemary | June 21, 2016 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

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This article was originally published by Transformation, a Section of the independent global media platform openDemocracy that tells the stories of those who are combining personal and social change in order to reimagine their societies. It is republished here with permission, please find the original article and discussion here.


The scientific community is profoundly uncomfortable with the storm of political controversy that climate research is attracting. What’s going on?

Some things can’t be said easily in polite company. They cause offence or stir up intense anxiety. Where one might expect a conversation, what actually occurs is what the sociologist Eviator Zerubavel calls a ‘socially constructed silence.’

In his book Don’t Even Think About It, George Marshall argues that after the fiasco of COP 15 at Copenhagen and ‘Climategate’—when certain sections of the press claimed (wrongly as it turned out) that leaked emails of researchers at the University of East Anglia showed that data had been manipulated—climate change became a taboo subject among most politicians, another socially constructed silence with disastrous implications for the future of climate action.

In 2013-14 we carried out interviews with leading UK climate scientists and communicators to explore how they managed the ethical and emotional challenges of their work. While the shadow of Climategate still hung over the scientific community, our analysis drew us to the conclusion that the silence Marshall spoke about went deeper than a reaction to these specific events.

Instead, a picture emerged of a community which still identified strongly with an idealised picture of scientific rationality, in which the job of scientists is to get on with their research quietly and dispassionately. As a consequence, this community is profoundly uncomfortable with the storm of political controversy that climate research is now attracting.

The scientists we spoke to were among a minority who had become engaged with policy makers, the media and the general public about their work. A number of them described how other colleagues would bury themselves in the excitement and rewards of research, denying that they had any responsibility beyond developing models or crunching the numbers. As one researcher put it, “so many scientists just want to do their research and as soon as it has some relevance, or policy implications, or a journalist is interested in their research, they are uncomfortable.”

We began to see how for many researchers, this idealised picture of scientific practice might also offer protection at an unconscious level from the emotional turbulence aroused by the politicisation of climate change 

In her classic study of the ‘stiff upper lip’ culture of nursing in the UK in the 1950s, the psychoanalyst and social researcher Isobel Menzies Lyth developed the idea of ‘social defences against anxiety,’ and it seems very relevant here. A social defence is an organised but unconscious way of managing the anxieties that are inherent in certain occupational roles. For example, the practice of what was then called the ‘task list’ system fragmented nursing into a number of routines, each one executed by a different person—hence the ‘bed pan nurse’, the ‘catheter nurse’ and so on.

Ostensibly, this was done to generate maximum efficiency, but it also protected nurses from the emotions that were aroused by any real human involvement with patients, including anxiety, something that was deemed unprofessional by the nursing culture of the time. Like climate scientists, nurses were meant to be objective and dispassionate. But this idealised notion of the professional nurse led to the impoverishment of patient care, and meant that the most emotionally mature nurses were the least likely to complete their training.

While it’s clear that social defences such as hyper-rationality and specialisation enable climate scientists to get on with their work relatively undisturbed by public anxieties, this approach also generates important problems. There’s a danger that these defences eventually break down and anxiety re-emerges, leaving individuals not only defenceless but with the additional burden of shame and personal inadequacy for not maintaining that stiff upper lip. Stress and burnout may then follow.

Although no systematic research has been undertaken in this area, there is anecdotal evidence of such burnout in a number of magazine articles like those by Madeleine Thomas and Faith Kearns, in which climate scientists speak out about the distress that they or others have experienced, their depression at their findings, and their dismay at the lack of public and policy response.

Even if social defences are successful and anxiety is mitigated, this very success can have unintended consequences. By treating scientific findings as abstracted knowledge without any personal meaning, climate researchers have been slow to take responsibility for their own carbon footprints, thus running the risk of being exposed for hypocrisy by the denialist lobby. One research leader candidly reflected on this failure: “Oh yeah and the other thing [that’s] very, very important I think is that we ought to change the way we do research so we’re sustainable in the research environment, which we’re not now because we fly everywhere for conferences and things.”

The same defences also contribute to the resistance of most climate scientists to participation in public engagement or intervention in the policy arena, leaving these tasks to a minority who are attacked by the media and even by their own colleagues. One of our interviewees who has played a major role in such engagement recalled being criticised by colleagues for “prostituting science” by exaggerating results in order to make them “look sexy”. You know we’re all on the same side,” she continued, “why are we shooting arrows at each other, it is ridiculous.”

The social defences of logic, reason and careful debate were of little use to the scientific community in these cases, and their failure probably contributed to internal conflicts and disagreements when anxiety could no longer be contained—so they found expression in bitter arguments instead. This in turn makes those that do engage with the public sphere excessively cautious, which encourages collusion with policy makers who are reluctant to embrace the radical changes that are needed.

As one scientist put it when discussing the goal agreed at the Paris climate conference of limiting global warming to no more than 2°C: “There is a mentality in [the] group that speaks to policy makers that there are some taboo topics that you cannot talk about. For instance the two degree target on climate change…Well the emissions are going up like this (the scientist points upwards at a 45 degree angle), so two degrees at the moment seems completely unrealistic. But you’re not allowed to say this.”

Worse still, the minority of scientists who are tempted to break the silence on climate change run the risk of being seen as whistleblowers by their colleagues. Another research leader suggested that—in private—some of the most senior figures in the field believe that the world is heading for a rise in temperature closer to six degrees than two.

“So repeatedly I’ve heard from researchers, academics, senior policy makers, government chief scientists, [that] they can’t say these things publicly,” he told us, “I’m sort of deafened, deafened by the silence of most people who work in the area that we work in, in that they will not criticise when there are often evidently very political assumptions that underpin some of the analysis that comes out.”

It seems that the idea of a ‘socially constructed silence’ may well apply to crucial aspects of the interface between climate scientists and policy makers. If this is the case then the implications are very serious. Despite the hope that COP 21 has generated, many people are still sceptical about whether the rhetoric of Paris will be translated into effective action.

If climate change work is stuck at the level of  ‘symbolic policy making’—a set of practices designed to make it look as though political elites are doing something while actually doing nothing—then it becomes all the more important for the scientific community to find ways of abandoning the social defences we’ve described and speak out as a whole, rather than leaving the task to a beleaguered and much-criticised minority.


Paul Hoggett is Chair of the Climate Psychology Alliance and Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at University of the West of England, Bristol.

Rosemary Randall is on the committee of the Climate Psychology Alliance and helped develop the award winning Carbon Conversations project. Paul and Rosemary are both psychoanalytically trained psychotherapists.


This article was originally published by Transformation, a Section of the independent global media platform openDemocracy that tells the stories of those who are combining personal and social change in order to reimagine their societies. It is republished here with permission, please find the original article and discussion here.

MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/socially-constructed-silence/

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  • liveoak

    Professors Hoggett and Randall–thank you for a very important and timely article. From my experience of many years in academia, I can attest to the fact that there is definitely a “socially constructed silence” in play. Since those in the know regarding climate science realize that the human species IS facing an existential threat, they are of course dealing with massive anxiety, as are many of us who have been following the development of the science, and indeed all of us who have been paying attention as human population/consumption has claimed more and more land and more and more species over the last decades. One asset that those of us in the latter category may bring to the table, in fact, is an ability to step back and assess many aspects of our current situation, not with detachment–we are still in pain over all the Life that’s being destroyed–but with the kind of “necessary distance” that is needed to articulate our analysis of what’s going on and why, such that appropriate interventions might be made.

    I think you are right on target in pointing to the “idealized picture of scientific rationality”–in the thinking of Iain McGilchrist, this would signify the Platonic world of the emotionally detached left hemisphere, clinging to its Cartesian metaphysics–as one large factor in the prevailing silence, and while there are efforts by many philosophers of science to change this picture now, it unfortunately remains embedded in our culture at large, if attaining its extreme expression in certain scientific circles. The increasing specialization that’s going on in academia can be understood as both a left-hemisphere imperative (according to its propensity for “chopping” things into smaller and smaller pieces) and a general defense against individuals who play destabilizing or destructive roles coming to envision how their actions affect the whole system, since they would then have to take responsibility for what they do, even if it constitutes only a small piece of the problem.

    Certain terms jump out from your essay–that many people feel “uncomfortable” when called upon to speak honestly and with their full measure of emotional engagement about an urgent topic, for instance, and that doing so is often “deemed unprofessional” by those in upper echelons of the social hierarchies that govern most human endeavors, their own statuses being of course dependent upon not “rocking the boat” no matter how unsound that vessel may be. I think there need to be more people doing exactly what the two of you are doing–directing attention toward these “defense mechanisms” that allow the denial to go on and on, and stirring up a conscious discussion about just such “unconscious” processes–once they are brought to light, they lose much of their power, or so I seem to have observed.

    After reading your essay on the MAHB, I took a look at the comments it received after your posted it June 6 on the Transformation/OpenDemocracy website. As always, there is quite a spread in the level of awareness of the people who make comments in such forums, ranging from those unfamiliar with the science who are out-and-out deniers of anthropogenic climate change to others who bring in economics as a major driver of our continuing atmospheric forcing. Several are astonished that you would write about “a socially constructed silence,” finding it “bizarre”–they are very likely members of the public who think those talking about climate change are raising quite a disturbing racket (which makes them “uncomfortable”), and they have little conception of what “academic freedom” is supposed to mean in the university setting. But within academia, your message is crucial, and it is to be hoped that more discussion will be forthcoming.

    Honesty prevents me from stopping my response here, however. I can sympathize with the many who feel that “science” as a societal monolith makes its pronouncements to the public from on high, and I even agree with some of the critics who believe that there are areas of science which are currently stonewalling on what they will discuss, both among themselves and with the educated citizen. One of the responses to your essay even brought up the issue of (get ready to cringe) “chemtrails.” Well, I have seen a few articles in one of the Nature journals attributing an increase in global warming to this phenomenon, but as yet I haven’t seen an entirely satisfactory scientific account as to what it is that makes the difference between what I used to see in the sky some years past and what I see now–sometimes long streamers of cirrus clouds that can persist for hours. Moreover, as someone trained in the biomedical sciences, I think that what we have learned over the last decade or so about the complexity of natural systems, including the bodies of living organisms, raises very legitimate questions about the safety of bioengineering, nanotechnology, and other such emerging and commercialized fields (remember Bill Joy’s warning?); the way the proponents of GM foods have “circled the wagons” and scapegoated fellow scientists, for example, has been shameful. The biggest area of what I consider “bad faith” in the scientific and larger academic community, however, has to do with the serious questions that arise concerning the physics of the way the World Trade Center buildings came down. The shunning of David Ray Griffin, a theological scholar, for his daring to look closely into this and related issues–issues of such portent, given the ramifications of what transpired then, and what we have allowed to happen since–is even more shameful; the matter deserves a thorough and honest airing by members of a variety of academic specialties, including your own. And speaking of things psychological, I would also take to task the pervasive tabooing of Stanley Milgram’s work over recent decades. His work is often brushed aside as “unethical” (because it potentially makes people “uncomfortable”?), but it is crucially important that we confront our own tendencies to “obey” clearly unethical dictates issued “from above.” Moreover, if one views Milgram’s famous videotape or shows it in class, it delivers some examples of those who “choose otherwise” than going along unthinkingly with social constructions–i.e., some who “think for themselves”–and realize that it’s really not so hard to do.

    • paul hoggett

      The ‘necessary distance’ that you speak of is, I think, key to an approach to scientific work which engages both reason and emotion. It came up not only in our interviews with climate scientists but also in subsequent interviews we’ve conducted with activists. What people were telling us was that sustained public engagement required a movement back and forth between immersion and detachment because continued immersion was simply too emotionally demanding and continued detachment weakened the motivation to act.

      • liveoak

        Yes, thank you for emphasizing that point. McGilchrist attributes our ability to attain the “necessary distance” to our frontal lobe development, both left and right, and thinks it’s crucial to our ability to “put ourselves in another’s shoes,” maintaining empathic connection but also awareness of that other as a different individual. Being able to sustain such a back-and-forth movement within oneself in order to deal effectively with highly emotionally-charged situations is an important key to navigating through these troubled times.

        I can’t help but think, however, that much of our denial problem is socially sustained and propagated. The pioneering experiments of Latane and Darley, showing the dramatic decline in helping behavior resulting from the presence of an indifferent “stooge,” and of Solomon Asch, demonstrating the willingness of many people to deny the evidence of their own eyes in order to “go along with the crowd,” seem salient in this regard. Our strongly social nature seems to be a hindrance at present, but it could also become an asset once we begin to grasp the gravity of our situation and start working together to reverse it.