Framing Science

Daniel Sarewitz, professor of science policy at Arizona State University, has an important op-ed at Slate today explaining why if we continue to frame the climate change debate in terms of science, we may never achieve meaningful policy action. Drawing on the conclusions of much of the scholarship in the area of science studies, Sarewitz writes:

When people hold strongly conflicting values, interests, and beliefs, there is not much that science can do to compel action. Indeed, more research and more facts often make a conflict worse by providing support to competing sides in the debate, and by distracting decision-makers and the public from the underlying, political disagreement. In such cases each side will claim to have the scientific high ground.

Writing in the New York Times last week, Al Gore made exactly this point about climate change by noting that “the science has become clearer and clearer.” Yes, there is a robust scientific consensus that human activity is causing the atmosphere to warm up. But so what? Decision-makers need to know how climate change will affect specific political jurisdictions, and, more importantly, what types of interventions will make a difference, over what time scales, at what costs, and to whose benefit–and whose detriment.

Sarewitz’s op-ed resonates with my own views on the issue shared earlier this week at Dot Earth and in a news report at the NYTimes.com. Until we propose policies that reflect the values and input of a range of political voices and until we communicate about the national and local benefits of those policies, we may never overcome political paralysis. Moreover, the more that scientists and environmental advocates become distracted by the climate skeptic movement, responding to every new attack with a combo of war rhetoric and technical defenses of the science, the deeper the divide on climate change is likely to grow.

Sarewitz’s full article is a must-read, but here’s how he ends:

Politics isn’t about maximizing rationality, it’s about finding compromises that enough people can live with to allow society to take steps in the right direction. Contrary to all our modern instincts, then, political progress on climate change requires not more scientific input into politics, but less. Value disputes that are hidden behind the scientific claims and counterclaims need to be flushed out and brought into the sunlight of democratic deliberation. Until that happens, the political system will remain in gridlock, and everyone will be convinced that they are on the side of truth.

Comments

  1. #1 Douglas Watts
    March 11, 2010

    This is pretty stupid strawman. By using this tactic you can argue both sides of the coin. On one hand say the public “needs more confidence in the science.” And then when more and more science is provided, turn around and say “it’s not about the science.”

    The idiocy of this is shown in the circular logic of the final quote:

    Politics isn’t about maximizing rationality, it’s about finding compromises that enough people can live with to allow society to take steps in the right direction.

    And that ‘right direction’ is to be determined by how, if not by ‘maximizing rationality’?

    A Ouija board?

  2. #2 ChicagoMike
    March 11, 2010

    I agree with Sarewitz that more scientific evidence is not the major impediment to taking action on climate change, but I take issue with this statement: “And if you believe, as do many conservatives, that government intervention in markets and in social arrangements should be kept to a minimum, you can find factual support for your views.”

    In a body of research as big as climate science (or the health risks of smoking, the theory of eveloution, etc), yes, you can cherry pick a few points of data which point to uncertainty, but the overwhelming consensus is pretty clear. The real problem is that many conservatives are unable to accept scientific conclusions that contradict their worldview, and most journalists are too scientifically illiterate to call them on it.

  3. #3 Erasmussimo
    March 11, 2010

    I agree with the previous commentators that the main thesis of the article misses the mark. I believe that our best strategy is to clearly differentiate the science from the politics (“Render unto Caesar…”) and readily acknowledge that the political response to climate change is a highly debatable issue. On the other hand, the science is not something to be decided by amateurs. Let the scientists do their jobs and figure out the science; we should not allow amateurs to second-guess the scientists. Congress set up the National Academy of Sciences 150 years ago expressly to handle this matter — and we should use that resource. The NAS says that climate change is real and the threat is poses is real. In terms of decision-making, that should settle the matter. We should now address how we are going to respond to the scientific conclusions. This nattering over the science is a political ploy and it deserves to be ignored so that we can forge ahead to the next level of discussion: the politics.

  4. #4 Douglas Watts
    March 11, 2010

    I agree with Sarewitz that more scientific evidence is not the major impediment to taking action on climate change …

    It’s the ‘reasonable doubt’ part that this is being spuriously rotated around. As long as we have Exxon and others pounding the science, and scientists, and waving ‘reasonable doubt’ as a flag, then deniers can rally around the flag of uncertainty forever as in Zeno’s Paradox of Achilles racing the tortoise.

    What Mr. Nisbet and Sarewitz fail to do here is to apply the same dynamic they apply to global warming to cigarette smoking or child lead paint poisoning, cryptosporidium in water supplies, etc. and then apply it back to global warming.

    No sane person questions the value and rationality of not painting your kids’ playpen with lead paint or not giving your kids a pack of Marlboros when they are 8. How did we all all arrive at these conclusions?

    Through extensive amounts of very careful and meticulous scientific research over many decades.

  5. #5 Corky
    March 11, 2010

    What all of the recent exposure regarding climate science reveals is that opportunists have essentially hijacked rational response through emotional pandering. And the issue that is on the table today is why should the public encourage obvious waste of resources for little return?

    The fact is that as time goes on and more and more “scientific lapses” are discovered, this says directly that 1) the science isn’t settled and 2) blind investment when the outcomes cannot be reasonably predicted is folly.

    Why is it that now that the light of day is showing us some pretty basic problems with what the climate science “consensus” has been feeding us does the enlightened political persuasion want us to just move on faith?

    What major policy actions has been directed by “bad” input in recent years, and how have we enjoyed those outcomes? Now is not the time to advocate letting the policy makers move forward with bad input. That’s just stupid.

  6. #6 Al Wood
    March 11, 2010

    Another article making a similar point is a recent piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cif-green/2010/mar/08/belief-in-climate-change-science

  7. #7 Al Wood
    March 11, 2010

    Roger Pielke Jr. also discusses this article on his blog, in a post on ‘The Trouble with Climate Science’, at

    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2010/03/trouble-with-climate-science.html

  8. #8 Douglas Watts
    March 12, 2010

    What Mr. Nisbet and Sarewitz seem to be doing is to carve out from the physical laws the CO2 absorption of infra-red photon radiation and place it into an entirely new and different category of physicals laws as that which governs the absorption of photons in the visible wavelengths by gaseous sodium. Nobody is ‘debating’ whether or why sodium-arc street lights work or give off that weird, sickly yellow light. They just do. The same with CO2 and infra-red bouncing off the Earth. For the same reasons. If people want to debate the values and morals of various elements absorbing or emitting photons received, have at it. But it’s not going to make the photons do anything different. They’re just photons.

  9. #9 Alex Witze
    March 16, 2010

    Sarewitz has an earlier and more fleshed-out version of his argument in his column for Nature this month (sorry, behind a paywall): http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100303/full/464028a.html

  10. #10 Renato Theberge
    September 1, 2011

    I have watched it and think that Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient truth” is just a propaganda… . We should not believe him what is happening today is a “man-made” global warming.. its not.. dont blame yourself for not having a prius or a hybrid!. . . what are your opinions about this?.

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