Science Versus Politics

Ecomodern Dispatches

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December 12, 2016 | Emma Brush

If the core feature of the Anthropocene “is a tangle of what we consider natural and what we don’t, nature not ended but morphed,” as Robert Sullivan comments in a recent New York Times review—if the divide between nature and culture, in other words, may be discarded, once and for all—then the same should be said of the study of these two objects, now more than ever.

Science and politics, it turns out, are not cut so cleanly as we might have imagined, a development that has led to displeasure on both sides of the aisle. Increasingly, we hear not only that science has been muddied with politics, as John Tierney claims in City Journal, but also that science—and specifically “the sort of hubristic scientific thinking that got us into this Anthropocene era to begin with,” as Sullivan says—has crept into politics. “We don’t need rare innovations so much as old-fashioned political tools,” his Times piece concludes.

But science and politics alike come off worse for the wear from this treatment, as do, perhaps, nature and society. Neither may be isolated from the other, nor is it clear that we would want them to be. Science informs good policy, just as policy has the capacity to promote good science. Scientists, moreover, are also people with values and goals, and politics provides the realm in which we collectively debate those goals.

Rather than to pick one side or the other—science or politics—better conversations would be had by a starting recognition of the messiness and merits of both. With this kind of framing, we might then begin to assess the solutions at hand—the policies that will assist our science, as well as the scientific and technological innovation that will serve our shared future, and the nature with which we share it.

More on messiness, science and technology, and policy pragmatism below:

Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy discuss the findings of the Pew Research Center’s recent survey on contemporary American attitudes toward food, science, and health. The nexus between the three has occasioned new ideologies and divisions that do not neatly map onto political or other more traditional divides, they report. Instead, these affinities “tie to individual concerns and philosophies about the relationship between food and well-being”—various frames, in other words, that have been influenced by public attention to health in the media, and perhaps particularly by influential (if also dogmatic) voices like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman. Dan Charles provides a helpful synthesis of the survey’s results—most interesting may be the finding that different food issues, such as attitudes toward organic food and GMOs, do not necessarily coincide. There’s a lot going on here, most of which is not easily teased out by simple appeals to scientific consensus.

Over 30 U.S. states have seen economic growth decoupled from carbon emissions since 2000, write Devashree Saha and Mark Muro, in a report released by the Brookings Institution last week. The fuel mix for electricity generation matters a whole lot in this regard, with natural gas and nuclear driving notable progress in the Northeast and South. (Renewables, on the other hand, have not yet shown to effect significant decarbonization, recalling a 2014 Breakthrough analysis that followed similar trends.) These findings offer important insights into the direction of decoupling and the work that remains—such as the need for new nuclear reactors, state-level regulatory support, and clean energy R&D. Above all, the report provides in empirical form a dose of both reality and hope: “That the main responsibility for this urgent project has fallen to America’s states and regions may seem discouraging,” they conclude, “but it is nothing new—and it does not rule out success.” Stephen Lacey and Ben Rosen also report.

Elizabeth Kolbert interviews John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, for Yale e360. After years of holding “the possibly naïve view that giving people more information will help,” Holdren now says “we need to focus more on the solutions and their attractiveness irrespective of whether you are convinced that humans are altering the climate to our detriment.” With respect to energy, for instance, he promotes natural gas in the short term and “some combination of nuclear and renewables” in the longer term (along with, perhaps, some CCS); when it comes to policy, he believes it “can accelerate the good trends” already in play. Holdren appears to be exiting the White House as a Climate Pragmatist—who takes his place is anyone’s guess.

Writing for National Geographic, Michelle Nijhuis highlights the dawning understanding—quite a long time coming—that the static vision of nature once promoted by national parks no longer serves. Humans, for one, have long altered landscapes, and nature itself, “left to its own devices, does not tend toward a steady state—landscapes and ecosystems are always being changed by storms or droughts or fires or floods, or even by the interactions of living things,” as Nijhuis points out. The onset of climate change will force parks to grapple with this paradigm shift in real terms, to open themselves to new possibilities and adapt to new realities as they emerge.

Jonathan Tirone features molten salt reactors and other next-gen nuclear technologies with the capacity for broader appeal than traditional nuclear plants. Potentially safer, smaller, and more economical, these designs have attracted interest across the political spectrum and signal the emergence of “a new nuclear paradigm” at the intersection of climate concerns and energy security, Tirone suggests.

Rosie Mestel speaks with Dan Kahan in Nature, who discusses the problems of group affinity and cognitive bias. If you can get individuals to think past their cultural groups to consider practical paths as well as counter-arguments, he says, we just might be able to move beyond the biases and limitations that have led to the deep polarization we are seeing today.

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Roger Pielke, Jr. details his fall from grace at the hands of the “climate thought police.” In closing, he calls on academic and journalists alike to champion “viewpoint diversity instead of serving as the handmaidens of political expediency by trying to exclude voices or damage reputations and careers. If academics and the media won’t support open debate,” Pielke writes, “who will?”


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