Environment Blog

Scientists, Get Political

To move forward on climate change, the illusory boundary between science and politics must come down

November 17, 2010

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.”

About the Author

Lena Groeger

Lena Groeger studied biology and philosophy at Brown University and is especially interested in the intersection of these two fields. After working as a graphic designer for Brown Health Education, she decided to think outside the poster and explore new means of communication, which led her to SHERP. She’s excited to write about the multidisciplinary questions of science and ethics for the general public. Visit her web site at www.lenagroeger.com.


1 Comment

Casey says:

I think there is a larger problem that this article is touching on: The general public’s distrust of experts – specifically scientists. I think the problem is in the altering of the term “expert.” Most people are used to watching the news, where experts on everything from internet privacy to voter turnout to children’s literature are paraded through the studio, often in pairs that represent both sides of an issue.

I think many people have trouble understanding a fundamental difference between natural science and social science. Scientific problems are studying a natural system which obeys laws not to avoid jailtime, but because those laws are the framework that everything runs on. The metal pieces that work together to make a clock run. Social, economic and cultural problems are part of a much larger system which depends on people and their pesky free will. These problems often don’t have a right, or even best answer.

What scientists need PR people for is not merely to convince the public that they know best merely when it comes to astronomy, evolution,the ozone layer, or global warming. We need science PR people to help convey the message that scientists have no stock in one hypothesis or the other. They have stock in truth, and in supporting the most logical conclusion based on the observations and experimental data gathered thus far. And if tomorrow a piece of data showed that everything we knew was wrong, then we start fixing what we know.

If science was truly political, Einstein never would have found footing. Galileo would never have agreed with Copernicus. Yes, the body of scientific knowledge is a slow ship to turn, but that is merely because rigorous testing is neccesary.

Sorry for the long comment, but my point is simply this. Scientists can’t start telling people what to do about the climate until they first explain to everyone why they should listen to them in the first place.

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