Monday, December 28, 2009

Climate change e-mail scandal underscores myth of pure science

Climate change e-mail scandal underscores myth of pure science

Los Angeles Times. 28/XII/2009

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.

The idea that pure, disinterested science should decide political
disputes was a staple of Democratic politics during the George W. Bush
administration. Now it's payback time, as Republicans gloat over an
alleged "smoking gun" of scientific misconduct provided by recently
released e-mails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic
Research Unit. After decrying the "Republican war on science,"
Democrats are hard-pressed to explain the discovery of their own
partisans in the scientific trenches.

We do not believe the East Anglia e-mails expose a conspiracy that
invalidates the larger body of evidence demonstrating anthropogenic
warming; nevertheless, the damage to public confidence in climate
science, particularly among Republicans and independents, may be
enormous. The terrible danger -- one that has been brewing for years
-- is that the invaluable role science should play in informing policy
and politics will be irrevocably undermined, as citizens come to see
science as nothing more than a tool for partisans of all stripes.

Central to this disaster has been scientists' insistence that they are
unsullied providers of truth in an otherwise corrupt and
indecipherable world. It was never so. Scholars continue to argue over
whether such titans of science as Pasteur and Millikan lied, cheated
and fabricated results or were simply exercising good scientific
intuition. Popular chronicles of real-world science such as "The
Double Helix" demonstrate that, in practice, science is competitive,
backbiting, venal, imperfect and, indeed, political. Science, in other
words, is replete with the same human failings that mark all other
social activities.

Moreover, problems such as climate change are much more scientifically
complex than determining the charge on an electron or even the
structure of DNA. The research deals not with building blocks of
nature but with dynamic systems that are inherently uncertain,
unpredictable and complex. Such science is often not subject to
replicable experiments or verification; rather, knowledge and insight
emerge from the weight of theory, data and evidence, usually freighted
with considerable uncertainty, disagreement and internal contradiction.

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

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.

We do not believe that climate change is merely a Trojan horse for a
Democratic dream of destroying global capitalism. Nor do we believe
that Republicans are so bent on maximizing the profits of the fossil
fuel industry that they are choosing to consign their grandchildren to
a ruined world. Yet these are only slight caricatures of the fantasies
that each side cherishes about the other because the true complexity
of the climate debate has been camouflaged by the myth of pure,
disinterested science.

That myth has allowed politicians to shirk their responsibility to be
clear about the values, interests and beliefs that underpin their
preferences and choices about science and policy. Better to recognize
that decision-makers, depending on their political beliefs, will weigh
the evidence and risks of climate change differently when evaluating
policy options. Their choices will influence the distribution of
benefits and costs, and will have varying and uncertain prospects for
success. Voters should evaluate the decisions on that basis, rather
than on the false notion that science is dictating the choices.

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.

Daniel Sarewitz is professor of science and society and co-director of
the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State
University. Samuel Thernstrom is a resident fellow at the American
Enterprise Institute in Washington.


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