To move past the gridlocked debate over global warming, scientists need to stop clinging to the belief that their work is free of political values, according to a prominent scientific thinker.
The belief in a boundary between science and politics is not only wrong, “it does considerable harm,” said Evelyn Fox Keller, a philosopher and historian of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She spoke about scientific responsibility at an October 8 event co-sponsored by the New York University Center for Bioethics and Environmental Studies Program. Known for her outspoken feminist critique of science, Keller aimed this time to shake climate scientists out of their politicophobia and into forging responsible policy.
The current impasse in the United States over climate policy is not solely due to feuding politicians and climate skeptics, says Keller, but is also bound up in the very nature of science’s self-image. The prevalent view, she said, is that scientists should stick to claims about “what is” while politicians should focus on “what should be done about it.” Scientists often invoke this notion in politicized debates, like the current one over how governments should respond to climate change, she added.
According to Keller, there is more to scientific responsibility than simply presenting the evidence. Researchers also need to explain to the public why they trust that evidence. In doing so, they will make intelligible the grounds for their convictions while also exposing the motives of those skeptics and politicians who seek to undermine any meaningful debate.
It is crucial that the public understand why they should trust the evidence – not because it is infallible, but because it comes from the most credible process, said Andrew Dessler, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University and former White House science and climate change policy analyst. In the same way someone might get a second, third, or tenth opinion on a serious medical matter, asking a variety of experts for their opinion is a good process to ascertain trustworthiness. The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a team of relevant experts from around the world who issue a scientific consensus statement on climate change, operates this way. Of course it is possible for the assessment to be wrong, said Dessler, just as it is possible for a hundred doctors to be wrong on a diagnosis. But when you want to get knowledge, “you can’t do any better than asking all the experts in the world what they agree upon.”
Dessler, who just co-wrote a book called The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate, is focusing his efforts on informing the public. Keller, meanwhile, is focusing on pushing scientists, as scientists, to speak openly about their own judgments in the debate on climate change. She acknowledges that this “scientific articulacy” will be difficult, but it is absolutely crucial to move the discussion forward. And it certainly won’t happen until scientists understand that “calling something a fact can itself be a political move.”