Construction of knowledge in the mass media. Systemic problems in the post-modern power-struggle between the symbolic generalized media in the Agora: the Lomborg case of environmental science and politics

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The present article analyses the Lomborg case of environmental conflicts in the Agora of the mass media by viewing science, politics, economics, religion and the big news media as differentiated systems using what Luhmann calls symbolic generalized
   1Research article Systems Research , 2006.   Systemic Problems in the Post-modern Power-Struggle between the Symbolic Generalized Media in the Agora: The Lomborg Case of Environmental Science and Politics. Master of biology, Ph.D. in Philosophy of Science and Dr. of Philosophy Søren Brier 1 , Assoc. Prof. at Copenhagen Business School, Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Porcelænshaven 18A, DK-2000 Frederiksberg,  Abstract The present article analyzes the Lomborg case of environmental conflicts in the Agora of the mass media by viewing science, politics, economics, religion and the big news media as what Luhmann calls symbolic generalized media. Each has its own simplified code and interest that make it easier and faster to canalize messages. But the problem for the public good then becomes that they cannot communicate directly with each other. Each system is closed around its own code and specialists. There are no rules of engagement for the benefit of the greater system of society. Is that a good thing or could the public knowledge generation processes be improved? In this article analyzes the  Lomborg case viewed as a problem of public knowledge management in democratic societies with  free presses. Key words: Agora, science communication, mode two, knowledge society, Lomborg case.  Introduction to the problem In 1962 the ecologists Rachel Carson 2  published the book Silent Springs  in which she challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government. She was attacked by chemical industry and governments as an alarmist. Since then we have been witness to clashes in mass media between scientific experts, industry and politics on a national and international scale. The question has been about environmental facts, philosophy and politics on central questions such as how much the international society should invest in combating pollution, deforestation, global warming, holes in the ozone layer and changing agricultural practices, etc. Some sort of general agreement of the reality and importance of the issue across the left to right spectrum in politics, and the actual need to change our production practice accordingly, seemed to have been attained globally by the end of the second millennium. But at the start of the third millennium the Danish Political scientist Bjørn Lomborg – who is  a political scientist - created a discussion on environmental science, prioritizing, and politics on a scale, and with a fierceness and ugliness 3  that we have not seen since the early years of the ecological movements in the 1970’ties, when we had much less data on the problems, and “green” was seen as a threat, not only to the hegemony of Western cultures but to civilization as such (Jamison 2004). Like the Dreyfus affaire in France it has created a deep conflict, drawing lines of hostility we were not aware of, creating long lasting bleeding wounds in our civilization. Why did the Bjørn Lomborg saga and its lashing back at the environmentalist movements globally cause such commotion in the media, in national and international politics and among the sciences, not only in Denmark but globally 4 ? Danish media editors, philosophers and politicians have thrown themselves into a debate echoing far beyond the country. On the basis of his book The Skeptical  Environmentalist   Lomborg (2001/2004) was accused of scientific fraud in Denmark and the case  brought before the UVVU (Udvalgene vedrørende videnskabelig uredelighed - Committees   2Concerning Scientific Dishonesty) 5 . His book got extremely critical reviews in Scientific American , Science  , and at little less in  Nature,  but was on the other hand generally supported by the  Economist, New York Times, Wall St. Journal, Globe & Mail, and The Guardian, and he was invited to make TV-broadcast by  BBC   and Channel 5 . In spite of fierce critique from environmental scientists, the Danish government made Lomborg the head of a new environmental evaluation institute (Environmental Assessment Institute), let him have direct influence on the government’s national and international environmental policy, and later he become the head-organizer of the Copenhagen Consensus Conference  (2004). Lomborg has risen to international fame and has had influence on global environmental politics; a favorable one seen from the point of view of many economists and great part of the industrial world; but in the opinion of many environmental experts he has contributed to putting the whole of humanity in even more danger than we already were, when we too late started addressing the problem of the ozone layer and the contribution of our production of carbon dioxide to global warming and the melting of the polar ice and the breaking down of the climate, to which our biosphere is adapted. Some claim we only have 10 years left to turn the development or an irreversible shift might happen. The core of the discussion, about what the facts are in the environmental problems and what our economical and political priorities should be, is a healthy and necessary debate in a democratic society. It is an amazing and very good thing that it can now go on globally, considering that the  problems we are facing together are on a global scale that demands global decisions and cooperation if we are going to solve them. But the important problem is whether this process is the optimal one for how we weight biological, geological, and meteorological result with economic and  political interests? Are the mass media and the political system sufficiently geared to handle this task in a way that supports and develop a global democratic culture and knowledge society? Can we improve on this for a democratic, technological, market society getting more and more global? The theoretical frame: The Agora, symbolic generalized media and the knowledge society In a now world famous book   Re-Thinking Science  Nowotny, H et al. (2001) show that we are now seeing fundamental changes in the ways in which scientific, social and cultural knowledge is  produced. They show how this trend marks a shift towards a new mode of knowledge production, which is replacing or reforming established institutions, disciplines, practices and policies. They  place science policy and scientific knowledge in its broader context within contemporary societies. Further they re-enlive the old concept of  Agora  from the classical Greek period. The marketplace where politicians, philosophers and merchants met to trade meaning, information and goods, has now reincarnated in the global mass media. From a systemic view Luhmann’s (1995) has described science, politics, religion, and political  power as specialized symbolic generalized communication systems. Luhmann views communication as what social systems are made of and he sees communication as a closed –even autopoietic – system that interpenetrates with the psychic systems of the individual human beings. But communication – as the social – is an autopoietic system in itself (Luhmann 1990). Building on  both Maturana’s autopoiesis theory Luhmann expands it into a sociological theory, not based on the actions of subjects, but on communication as a self-organized system in it self. He further argues (Luhmann 1990) that we are composed of three major closed, autopoietic systems: a biological, a  psychological (that does not speak) and a socio-communicative interpersonal system. Thus three organizationally closed systems working separately make communication possible. But only communication communicates. The psyche as such is silent. Communication function on the basis   3of and in between psycho-biological interpenetrated autopoietic systems, in the way that it uses then as environment, because although they are alive, perceiving, thinking and feeling, only communication can communicate (Luhmann 1992 p. 251). The two other systems are silent. Human life is lived in meaning. As Luhmann (1995) states, we use meaning to reduce complexity. Communication is his basic social concept. Society is system of communications. Luhmann (1992  p. 251) writes that “I would like to maintain that only communication can communicate  and only within such a network of communication is what we understand as action created”. Communication functions as series of selections of information, utterance and understanding. Those three together makes up, when they function at the same time, a message between - at least two - persons. "The three components - information, utterance and understanding - must...not be interpreted as functions, as acts, or as horizons for validity claims (which is not to deny that these are also possible ways of applying the components). They are also not building  blocks of communication that can exist independently and need to be put together by someone - by whom, the subject? Rather, it is a matter of different selections, whose selectivity and field of selection can be constituted only through communication. There is no information outside of communication; there is no utterance outside of communication; there is no understanding outside of communication. This is so not in a merely causal sense, according to which the information would have to be the cause of the utterance and the utterance the cause of understanding, but rather in the circular sense of mutual presupposition. (...) A system of communication is therefore a fully closed system that generates the components of which it consists through communication itself" Luhmann 2002, s.160. Communication as a functional system, then – like all the functional systems in the modern society - develops into specialized systems working each with their own code. Science works with truth/false, economy with profit/non-profit, politics with influence/not-influence and so on. Thus the systems have different frames for their rationalities. Often we see classes between those rationalities, even within science broadly understood biological ecologists have another frame of rationality than economists (Luhmann 1989). With this theoretical approach we can view the modern Agora of the mass media as the place where the competition, discussion and combat  between parties representing knowledge types from the different media takes place. The interactions  between these media in the Agora of the large news businesses are the pivot around which modern knowledge society spins. Gibbons et. al. (2001/1994) write “Expertise reaches out beyond knowledge production by linking knowledge to decision-making and action” (p. 216). A systems view on these interactions seems necessary if we want to develop a civilized society where “right is might” and not the other way around. But how can a postmodern and postindustrial democratic capitalistic culture employ public knowledge management in the modern decentralized functionally differentiated society, where science is only one of many knowledge and power systems to be dealt with? Habermas (1985) has worked hard to develop a modern ethical discourse rationality, which can keep up with the functional differentiation and radicalization of differences in knowledge types. Luhmann (1995), however, points to that the functional specialization of modern and postmodern   4society with its still more specialized symbolic generalized autopoietic communication makes intersystem communication still more difficult. Habermas’ model does not seem to function anymore, if it has ever done so. The discussion around UVVU and Lomborg has evolved around the relationship between freedom of speech and control of the use of scientific results in economic and political debates about environmental issues. The argument for freedom of speech and not having any official control of the way you communicate and argue with scientific results in non-scientific mass media has been that it given time enough the scientific critical mechanisms would make the knowledge claims obsolete and ineffective as a basis for political decisions. The counter-argument has been/is that time has shown that the power of scientific mechanisms has been too weak when confronted with the Media and politicians in this new mass media information society. When scientific mechanisms are not respected, and the media promote scientists without any international standing in the research field, and pronounce them experts, whereas they are not even specialists within the specific area, then what can science do to protect its special kind of knowledge and influence on the rationality of governmental decisions? In the following I will present more detailed facts from the Lomborg story and debate in order to document and demonstrate the types of conflicts it has generated and argue for their general nature from this case story 6 . The Lomborg story and its conflicts The rise of Lomborg to national and international repute (disrepute to many) through mass media and politics concerning environmental risk evaluation and economic prioritization, is an interesting development and story. Bjørn Lomborg, born January 6 1965 7 , is a young political scientist educated at the University of Aarhus. M.A. in political science (Cand. scient. pol.) 1991 8 . In his young years, Lomborg paid contributions to Greenpeace (without being a member) and was concerned about certain environmental issues, e.g. the declining quality of semen. He became assistant professor at the department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus. He finished his Ph.D. at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen, within the discipline of game theory. The dissertation led to a paper in  American Sociological Review on "the iterated  prisoner’s dilemma". This seems to be the only paper from his hand in an international scientific  journal before his book  9  was published. From1994 to 1996 he was an associate professor in Aarhus mainly teaching statistical courses to freshmen 10 . In the first six months of 1997, Bjørn Lomborg made a study tour in USA, where he suddenly changed his attitude to environmental issues. He claims to have been influenced by reading an interview (Lomborg 2001 preface XIX) with the American right-wing economist Julian Simon, who argued  11  that the "prophecies of doom" issued  by environmentalists are completely unwarranted and that, in fact, the environment is improving. Lomborg seems also to have been inspired by other American anti-environmentalist books, such as "The True State of the Planet" (ed. R. Bailey, 1995), the title of which is actually similar to the title of his first Danish book. Lomborg returned to Denmark in the summer of 1997. He was then aided at the beginning of 1998 by one of the major Danish newspapers Politiken  through the t editor in chief Thøger Seidenfaden 12  to publish several “kronikker” 13  criticizing political as well as scientific environmentalist predictions about the extinction of species, water and air pollution etc 14 , In these “kronikker” Lomborg introduced his controversial opinions, which resulted in a firestorm debate spanning over 400 articles in major national newspapers 15 . Later the same year another article followed and yet another in January 1999.   5This is a highly unusual way to start a university carrier. But Lomborg – with his single international scientific article published - was not starting a traditional research carrier. He was short-circuiting the system going straight into the mass media a bit like the researchers behind the  postulated ‘cold fusion’ 16 . They also made a worldwide stir – and there are still researchers trying to make cold fusion 17 . This is a sign maybe of the growing powers of the mass media also on the effect in society of scientific results. The articles in Politiken,  and further works of students, lead to the publication of Verdens Sande Tilstand   (The Real (or True) State of the World) (Lomborg 1998), where Lomborg, subject by subject and based on various statistical articles, discusses the impact of the world’s environmental  problems 18 . The book title is playing on that of the World Watch Institute’s yearbook, State of the World  , (2001), edited each year by Lester Brown, describing the environmental conditions in the global development in several areas, and documenting the growing environmental problems undermining global civilization. Lomborg’s book challenges widely held beliefs that the global environment is progressively getting worse. Using open and official statistical information from internationally recognized research institutes, Lomborg systematically examines a range of major environmental issues and claims to document that the global environment has actually improved. It is 322 pages long, with about 600 references and nearly 1500 notes. The main message presented to the reader by Lomborg’s book is that the environmental condition of the world is not as bad as environmental researcher and organizations have maintained for years. On the contrary, things are going much better. There are reasons for being optimistic. At he same time he severely accuses many scientists and environmentalist for twisting the interpretation of data in a negative direction to alert the public of the environmental problems, and make the politicians give more money to their research. But soon Lomborg would get money for claiming the opposite! In May 1999 the Danish Ecological Council 19  launched a book where 18 independent experts from a wide range of fields evaluated the same area that Lomborg had dealt with, and three of the chapters criticized his methods. Its Danish title Fremtidens Pris  means "The Price of the Future". The humanitarian organization  Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke 20  (  Danish Association for International Co-operation ) agreed to pay for the publishing. It ran to 329 pages, and 6 of the contributors were from the social sciences - mainly economists. Thus the problems of evaluating the environmental  problems showed not primarily to be a dispute between a natural and a social scientific view. Several public discussion meetings did not make Lomborg change anything; except that he and his students published a counter book named Godhedens Pris in Danish  , which  means "The Price of Goodness" in English and refers to Lomborg's claim that people who try to be "good" persons are very costly to society – parallel to Milton Friedman’s arguments in economy. During the following years, the public debate continued in a lower gear. In the newspaper Politiken , Lomborg was given space by Seidenfaden to have additional feature articles and a column every three weeks for some years. From1998 to 2001, Lomborg remained at his Institute at Aarhus University, and wrote the English version of his book called The Skeptical Environmentalist – measuring the real state of the world   (2001) A few pieces of text from the Danish version that were flawed have been omitted or modified, for example some of the most misleading quotes in the biodiversity chapter, and some text on the relationship between sun spot cycles and global warming. The chapter on global warming has been extended. The number of notes and references is much larger. There are now about 1700 references and nearly 3000 notes. It became a global hit, and at the same time an infamous book among environmental experts around the globe, but hailed by a majority among
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