Climate change e-mail scandal underscores myth of pure science

Arizona State prof. Daniel Sarewitz has long been a Seekerblog reliable source on issues of science and technology policy. Here is Sarewitz with Samuel Thernstrom in an LA Times op-ed:

The East Anglia controversy serves as a reminder that when the politics are divisive and the science is sufficiently complex, the boundary between the two may become indiscernible.

(…) 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.

(…) 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.

(…) 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. (…)

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