November 19, 2009
Science Can’t Tell Us What to Do
The necessary boundary between climate science and politics has become indiscernible as politicians on both sides of the political spectrum invoke "pure" science as the justification for climate policy, said Breakthrough Senior Fellow Dan Sarewitz and co-author Samuel Thernstrom in an Los Angeles Times commentary on the lesson learned from ClimateGate.
"As two scholars with different political orientations but common concerns, we have each worked to challenge conventional wisdom that has undermined public understanding of the climate change problem. Many Republicans have been too reluctant to acknowledge strong evidence of human-caused warming and the need for prudent policies that could reduce its harmful effects. Democrats have let their own political judgments and values infect climate science and its interpretation, often understating the uncertainties about the timing and scale of future risks, and the tremendous costs and difficulties of effective action.
Yet both parties have agreed, although tacitly, on one thing: Science is the appropriate arbiter of the political debate, and policy decisions should be determined by objective scientific assessments of future risks. This seductive idea gives politicians something to hide behind when faced with divisive decisions. If "pure" science dictates our actions, then there is no need to acknowledge the role that political interests and social values play in deciding how society should address climate change."
Sarewitz and Thernstrom go on to explain that even though the East Anglia e-mails do not discredit the significant body of evidence pointing to anthropogenic global warming, scientists who claim they are "unsullied providers of truth in an otherwise corrupt and indecipherable world," are misrepresenting the nature of the scientific inquiry and perpetrating a "myth of pure, disinterested science."
The authors pinpoint the "uncomfortable reality" that results from deferring to pure science and suggest a solution to scientific quandary ClimateGate has brought to the fore:
"Thus, we write neither to attack nor to defend the East Anglia scientists, but to make clear that the ideal of pure science as a source of truth that can cut through politics is false. The authority of pure science is a two-edged sword, and it cuts deeply in both directions in the climate debate: For those who favor action, the myth of scientific purity confers unique legitimacy upon the evidence they bring to political debates. And for those who oppose action, the myth provides a powerful foundation for counterattack whenever deviations from the unattainable ideal come to light.
East Anglia researchers and their defenders claim they succumbed to paranoia and secrecy only as a result of relentless pressure from their enemies. Critics argue that the e-mails reveal the science to be biased and subjective. Neither side acknowledges the underlying, uncomfortable reality: When the politics are divisive and the science is sufficiently complex, the boundary between the two may become indiscernible.
The real scandal illustrated by the e-mails is not that scientists tried to undermine peer review, fudge and conceal data, and torpedo competitors, but that scientists and advocates on both sides of the climate debate continue to claim political authority derived from a false ideal of pure science. This charade is a disservice to both science and democracy. To science, because the reality cannot live up to the myth; to democracy, because the difficult political choices created by the genuine but also uncertain threat of climate change are concealed by the scientific debate.
What is the solution? Let politics do its job; indeed, demand it."
As the authors suggest, instead of justifying policy and science preferences with an explanation of values, interests, and beliefs, politicians on both sides simply cite science as the sole rationale behind their policy positions. This situation is exacerbated by the complexity of climate science, which requires a willingness to understand uncertainty from both sides of the scientific and political spectrum, not indulgence of the impulse to propound extreme and unknowable conclusions.
Sarewitz and Thernstrom conclude by calling for political action to mitigate climate change that is informed by the scientific uncertainty, not dependent on the purity of scientific truths that do not exist.
"Can science and politics recover from the damage done in the name of scientific purity? We believe the weight of scientific evidence remains sufficient to justify prudent action against climate change -- but we are equally aware that the consequences of both climate change and climate policies remain highly uncertain. The choices are extraordinarily difficult; the costs of action, and inaction, are potentially momentous. No one can know what the "right" decisions will be, but the e-mail controversy reminds us that imperfect people, not pure science, must decide that question. This is a job for democratic politics, informed by, but not shackled to, a pluralistic, insightful and imperfect scientific enterprise."
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