Workshop "Cultures of Prediction: Scientists and the Crafting of the Future"

13-14 June 2016, Aarhus University, Centre for Science Studies

Confirmed guests:

  • Phaidra Daipha, Rutgers University (New Jersey, USA)

  • Harro Maas, University of Lausanne (Switzerland)

  • Jamie Pietruska, Rutgers University (New Jersey, USA)

The sociologist Gary Alan Fine has introduced the term “culture of prediction” to describe the culture of weather forecasting in the Chicago office of the US National Weather Service (Fine 2007). We use it in the plural to suggest a multitude of distinct cultures of prediction. The term “cultures of prediction” emphasizes the local origin and socially contingent character of the cultural formations which have emerged around the use of scientific approaches for predictive purposes. Cultures of prediction operate in specific scientific and social contexts and reveal sets of shared knowledge, practices, values and rules, which have emerged and stabilized and concurrently shaped scientific and public perceptions, conduct and goals. While cultures of prediction are based on scientific communities and knowledge, they extend far beyond the realm of science and inform and shape social practice, meaning and authority in broader society.

In our project “Shaping Cultures of Prediction: Knowledge, Authority and the Construction of Climate Change” we examine the emergence of climate modeling as a culture of prediction. Our research is guided by a framework of themes such as the following. Research practices: How did practices and uses of computer modeling and simulation shape the formation of cultures of climate prediction? How were these practices negotiated in diverse scientific communities? Negotiation ofuncertainty: How were uncertainties framed and negotiated? How and why did scientific cultures differ with regard to the treatment of uncertainty? Emergence of confidence and trust: How did modelers develop confidence and trust in their models? Why did some leading climatologists not develop confidence in models? Scientific and social authority: Which scientists were considered experts on climate, and what standards, processes and social relations governed the attribution of authoritative expertise in climate? Scientific identities: Which scientific identities existed in climatology as modeling emerged, and how where they framed? How were scientific, political and social identities constructed and negotiated?

Our project suggests the larger – but contested – claim that science has experienced a revolutionary shift in recent decades. The development and extensive application of computer modeling and simulation has transformed the knowledge-making practices of a large range of scientific fields.  Furthermore, it fueled the emergence of new cultures of prediction. An increasing number of scientific institutions, think tanks, companies, governmental authorities and other institutions demanded and produced huge amounts of predictive information based on modeling and simulation and formed part of the growing and diversifying cultures of prediction. Indeed, the significance of the concept of cultures of prediction lies in the pervasiveness, abundance and circulation of predictive knowledge in societies of the late 20th and 21st century. In becoming key practices in the environmental sciences, we argue that computer modelling and simulation have fundamentally changed practices of knowledge production and the form and content of these disciplines’ claims to truth, and have therefore had a decisive impact on the authority and social significance of environmental knowledges.

It is the aim of the workshop to critically review such claims and put them in broader perspective. Themes of the workshop comprise: 1) Conceptual questions: What are cultures of prediction? How could they be described or defined? Is the use of this concept productive and helpful? What are its advantages or disadvantages? Are there other, better concepts? 2) Continuity and discontinuity of prediction in society: Is the claim warranted that the postwar period saw a revolutionary shift in science with the emergence of computer modeling and simulation and a proliferation of new cultures of prediction? Which earlier formations of cultures of prediction and which continuities and discontinuities existed? 3) Varieties of cultures of prediction: Are the environmental and climate sciences an untypical case with regard to the formation and impact of cultures of prediction? Which cultures of prediction formed in other research domains or disciplines, and if so how do they compare? 4) Social authority of prediction: Which scientific, social and political interests supported or pushed the development of predictive scientific approaches and the rise of cultures of prediction? How attained cultures of prediction scientific, social and political authority? Which social roles did scientific prediction play in different historical periods and contexts?

Depending on the outcomes of the workshop and the interest of workshop participants, we will consider preparing a collaborative publication such as a special issue on prediction or cultures of prediction. Science played a significant role in the production of predictions and the creation of imaginations about the future. This topic is of historical relevance as well as of great actuality and may offer chances and challenges for focused scholarly efforts.