"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Does Science Even Matter?

In an oh-so-reasonable-sounding article on Slate, Daniel Sarewitz argues the contrary of the position I have been taking recently.

My position is first, that science can no longer depend on the press, or the institutional press office, or pop science media to get important messages out. That much has become blazingly obvious. Second, that certain messages of science are necessary to sound governance, that science is a crucial component of collective decision making in modern society. As a conclusion, it is necessary for science participate directly in public communication. It may not be feasible for science, as currently institutionally structured, to do so.

Consequently, to fulfill its responsibilities to society, science as a culture may need to create new institutions, and certainly science needs to create new career paths. This is necessary so that scientific knowledge is appropriately considered in consequential public discourse.

You would think that would be blazingly obvious too, but Sarewitz makes an argument that inclines pretty strongly to the contrary.

Not to put words in his mouth, his thesis is
A dangerous idea has taken hold in modern politics, and the sooner it is discredited, the better. The idea is that political disagreements can be resolved by science. Its basic logic seems sensible: As good children of the Enlightenment, we should turn to science to establish the facts about problems such as climate change before deciding what policies to implement. Yet the types of things that scientists are good at figuring out don't have much to do with the types of things that politicians need to decide.
This starts out as reasonable. Lest I be misunderstood, let me concede that science is insufficient to make the sorts of decisions we need to make. Decisions need to be based on values and preferences, as well as on pragmatism, political tradeoffs and competing goals. Science will never trivialize politics; any such claim is ludicrous. But Sarewitz claims that "the types of things that scientists are good at figuring out don't have much to do with the types of things that politicians need to decide," in other words he claims that science is essentially unnecessary to politics.

This is the sort of dream world that beltway types actually live in. I am, as Dave Barry would say, not making this up.

It is instructive to look at his arguments. First of all, he notes,

The most wonderful illustration of this mismatch between what science can tell us and what politicians care about is the effort to build a long-term storage site for nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. It's probably fair to say that, after 25 years and $13 billion of government-funded research, no area of ground on Earth is more studied than Yucca Mountain, yet all of this science has done absolutely nothing to quell opposition from locals and environmental groups. On the contrary, it provided a continual source of new discoveries and uncertainties that combatants could draw upon to bolster their political and legal cases. For example, varying estimates of the amount of ground water flowing through the rocks at the site were central both to claims that Yucca Mountain was safe and that it should be abandoned.

What makes Yucca Mountain such a political quagmire is not the complexity of the science but the way that Congress rammed Yucca Mountain down Nevada's throat in 1987—an exercise in top-down power politics that provoked profound and unquenchable resentment.
There is spin and there is twist. The above is a horrifying twist on Bill McKibben's observation that
the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who would like, for a variety of reasons, to deny that the biggest problem we’ve ever faced is actually a problem at all. Three thousand pages (the length of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)? That pretty much guarantees you’ll get something wrong.
The issues about Yucca Mountain are indeed instructive.

Those issues are about the tradeoffs between traditional location-based politics and a world of national needs and global consequences. Whether nuclear power is pursued in the future or not, somebody needs to take the waste we already have. Nevada is arguably the right place for it. That paranoia and resentment results within Nevada is, perhaps, inevitable. That the society cannot manage to settle the question with facts and negotiation is not. To celebrate the failure of factual argument and global implications to enact a Yucca Mountain repository or something similar is to do what beltway types so often do; it is to confuse a problem with an insurmountable principle.

The important conclusion to draw is not that a Yucca repository was rammed down anybody's throat. The important conclusion is that for purely cultural, totally nontechnical, nonphysical reasons, we cannot implement a technical, physical solution to a technical, physical problem.

The problem is not that reason fails. The problem is that politics fails to be reasonable.

Blaming reason for the failure of politics is about as backwards as you can get something.

Yet, Sarewitz manages to do so:
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.

When it comes to questions like these, political beliefs can map nicely onto different ways of selecting, assembling, and interpreting the science. If you believe that government should intervene in markets to incentivize rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, you can justify your preference with data, theories, and models that predict increases in extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts, and floods. 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 the long-term unpredictability of regional climate behavior, the significant economic and social costs associated with shifting to more expensive energy sources, and the historical failure of government efforts to steer large-scale social and economic change.

In other words, we beltway types, journalists, politicians, lawyers and such, do not have the competence to distinguish realistic arguments based on evidence from trumped-up arguments based on cherry picked evidence . (Indeed, cherry picking is our job description. We come up with a point of view, and troll the internet for supporting facts. For some reason (!), in the past ten years we have gotten quite good at it.)

Consequently, you guys might as well not bother, because we are running the show, and we can't pick the serious thinkers from the ringers to save our lives.

Well, yes, these guys are, for the moment, running the show. And indeed they can't tell science from the most absurd woo-woo. True enough.

Somehow the conclusion that we might as well not bother is not the one I reach from that.

Update: Sarewitz had a far less irritating piece at Nature a few days ago. Tom Yulsman and RP Jr have already had their say on that one. The point on the politicization of science is a real concern. But the Slate article takes it much too far.

Update: Fleck defends Sarewitz. And again.


Anonymous said...

Somebunny (or several somebodies) has pointed out elsewhere that a good deal of this sort of posturing seems designed not to better allow politicians to implement scientifically-informed policies, but to increasingly shoulder aside the role of science in decision making in favor of prescriptions by pundits and poli-sci types.

Sarewitz cites successes ("air and water quality, endangered species, pesticide use, toxic waste clean-up, and the environmental impacts of government projects") based on science and ostensibly quickly adopted politically. He then cites as failures two examples (BPAs and climate) where industry interests have muddied the scientific evidence as though it's somehow a failure of too much science. And he ignores that his "successes" faced the same uphill battles and were far more incremental and piecemeal than such a blithe recitation would imply.

It also alludes to a sort of mythical Eden in which science was something that had not yet tasted from the apple of strong political and policy advocacy.

Which is, frankly, bullsh|t. Intentionally or not, the study of the physical world can and does from time to time essentially necessitate political action, sometimes even rather specific political action.

The very act of choosing what to study, be it atmospheric concentrations of CO2, stratospheric ozone, or the effect of mountaintop removal coal mining, can clearly point to a course of political action, even if it doesn't detail the metaphorical vehicle make, model, and color or provide turn-by-turn navigation to get there.

Hank Roberts said...

Good long thoughtful blog post with many links here:


---- brief excerpt follows ----

First, it is important to remind everyone that peer-review is a very new thing. Only one minor paper by Einstein went through peer-review. Nature only started experimenting with it in the late 1960s. Yet lots and lots of great science was published before this was instituted. There is no data supporting the view that peer-review actually does much good.

We at PLoS ONE are trying to improve the process. What we have noticed (and most of our academic editors and authors agree) is that by eliminating the need for reviewers to evaluate if a manuscript is novel, exciting, revolutionary, paradigm-shifting, mind-boggling and Earth-shaking, and only asking them to evaluate the technical aspects of the work, the review becomes MUCH better:

As the scientific paper itself evolves, more and more of the peer-review will happen after publication, on the paper or connected to it and journalists need to be a part of it....

---- end excerpt -----

Anonymous said...

I've asked this in a couple of places. No answers yet.

Why does the climate science community think it is immune from the fate of, as above, Yucca Mountain, irradiation of food, and several other outcomes, all based on science?

Equally important, maybe more important, not only has the science been successfully completed, but the engineering research and development and technology has been developed to the stage of viable solutions in products and services.

David B. Benson said...

edaniel --- So far, the question makes no sense. Try careful rephrasing, please.

skanky said...

For a start, he seems to give undue prominence to the Himalayan glacier error, which is a result of a failing of politics, not science.

From your shared items - "Climate debate: opinion vs evidence":

"The laws of physics will relentlessly assert themselves, unswayed by public opinion, political shenanigans, or elections. Ultimately, the laws of physics will speak so loudly that no amount of wishful thinking can prevent them from being heard; but because any delay in taking action against climate change will increase the human and financial burden on future generations, it is our responsibility now to cease tolerating lies, misrepresentations, puerile accusations, and conspiracy theories that are unworthy of public discourse in a mature democracy."

I guess the bit from "but because any delay..." onwards is a value position that, about which, Sarewitz thinks any decision is hindered, by knowledge of the bit up to that point. At least, that's how his article reads.

He also contradicts himself:

"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"

So more scientific input required, followed by:

"political progress on climate change requires not more scientific input into politics, but less."

So how are we supposed to know what the regional (etc.) impacts will be? Wait for them to happen, then decide what to do to stop it? That's pretty much what he applauds earlier when he says:

"But the political climate was favorable, and many of the problems-- like smog and burning rivers--were obvious for all to see, so the science was more than sufficient to support action."

Does he just have no concept of timescales and think that as some problems are reversible relatively quickly, then all will be?

His example of BPA is an odd one. The climate change issues will mainly affect our children (and their children), so why aren't the relevant industries pre-empting legislation? Oh yes, the politics aren't "right". That statement conveniently ignores one of his earlier reasons for the BPA change: "and because cost-effective alternatives to BPA already exist."

How right would the politics be if no alternatives currently existed? Why do such alternatives already exist?

Anonymous said...

David Benson

There are several issues that affect public policy for which the science is fully developed, yet these have not yet been adapted into public policy. More importantly, for all of these, not only is the basic science fully developed, but the engineering and technology needed to implement solutions in a manner that ensures the health and safety of the public are fully developed. Here are some examples.

The Department of Energy was established in 1977 with the mission to decrease the dependency of the USA on imported oil. Over three decades ago, and pre-dating the AGW issue by over a decade! I'm sure that given the resources of the national laboratory system, plus many private organizations, it is an excellent assumption that just about everything that can be known about the issues has been studied to death, as we sometimes say. Look where the USA is today. At the same time look in certain parts of the world, and you'll find that some countries have in fact already been very successful in meeting the challenges of consumption of hydrocarbons in appropriate applications. Not used here.

Yucca Mountain, of course, was a part of our attempt to attain what has already been done in some places. It's going down the tubes. Yet, the Yucca Mountain project has been a model of openness. Every calculation, every report, every aspect in every detail is available for review and study by any one who wants to. And to a depth of detail that is very likely never previously been attained. The science, plus the all-important engineering and technology development for safe and reliable implementation, have been completed for years and years. Not used here.

As another example, irradiation of foodstuffs can save lives. With bonuses of reduction in use of natural resources for food production, including use of hydrocarbon-based fuels. Fully developed, approved for us by the FDA, and methods for safe and reliable and effective implementation fully available. Not used here.

There are other examples; many others.

It should be exceedingly clear that there are extremely important forces at work that can easily negate all the finest efforts of tens of thousands of dedicated workers accomplishing the best in science, engineering, and applied technology, over an uncountable number of hours. It should be especially clear that simple, and oftentimes incomplete and simplistic, appeals to 'science', 'the science', or 'the peer-reviewed science' just won't fill the bill.

That's a short summary of what I mean when I ask, Why does the Climate Change Community think it is immune from the fate of other similar issues.

Michael Tobis said...

edaniel, yes.

I understood you the first time, actually, but I appreciate the amplification.

The provocative question, I hope, is rhetorical. I don't think climate science considers itself special in this regard, and indeed, if it did, it now knows better.

It just happens to be the topic at hand for myself and the community of which I am part. Also, it is a problem that gets rapidly worse the longer society takes to come to terms with it. And it is a problem which requires the participation of all major economies to resolve.

I don't maintain the opinion that if climate were somehow solved magically (cheap solar and cheap batteries, say, or desktop cold fusion) that humanity would be in good shape. There is a sequence fo global problems facing us as we transition from a frontier planet to spaceship earth.

The fundamental problem is the one you describe, not the climate itself. We need a capacity to think collectively.

Anna Haynes said...

I notice that the author has (had) affiliations with Arizona State University (Tempe) and Colorado State University (Fort Collins).

These institutions have made a name for themselves, inactivisitically speaking.
(yes, I realize it's the actions of only some people, not the entire institution, but still, their names do pop out.)

Sarewitz is a coauthor with Pielke Jr, FWIW.

Neven said...

Sarewitz wrote a paper called How Science Makes Environmental Controversies Worse.

On Pielke's blog I wrote:

'How Science Makes Environmental Controversies Worse'

And how did Science make the tobacco controversy worse? Or the CFC controversy? Or the acid rain controversy? Or the DDT controversy?

Is there not some other element that is making it worse in a much bigger way? And when successful, starts blaming Science for it?

The problem in my opinion is not so much that the political debate or PR war is about which course of action to take, as Sarewitz seems to imply. The problem is that the debate is (still) about the question whether action should be taken or not. Now, you can hardly blame Science for that, as the evidence that some form of action needs to be taken ought to be deemed sufficient by now (and is mounting as we speak).

The main reason of the polarization in my view is that there is a fairly large group of people whose ideological view cannot accept anything that involves voluntarily changing the status quo. And so they will do anything to hinder policy, not by constructively proposing alternative policies, but by destructively sowing doubt and controversy.

'And when successful, starts blaming Science for it'

When I read stuff by people like Pielke and now Sarewitz, I can't help but thinking of the proverb 'timeo danaos et dona ferentes'. Somebody gets killed in a car accident, the drunk driver drives off, and then an eye witness steps up and says it was the victim own's fault.

And I agree with thingsbreak's argument as well. I hadn't thought about that one yet.

Mad Scientist said...

The Department of Energy was established in 1977 with the mission to decrease the dependency of the USA on imported oil. Over three decades ago, and pre-dating the AGW issue by over a decade! I'm sure that given the resources of the national laboratory system, plus many private organizations, it is an excellent assumption that just about everything that can be known about the issues has been studied to death, as we sometimes say.

Are you kidding me? There are still tons of new energy technologies being developed. Even our understanding of older technologies is lacking where it is unfeasible to use. Also, remember the Department of Energy isn't just solely researching energy.

Mad Scientist said...

Actually, the more I think about it the more this issue tends to be conflating science and engineering. With science there is really only one answer while with engineering you can come up with an infinite amount of answers depending upon the criteria. Even if everyone agreed upon global warming I doubt anything would change. I have seen debates break out with scientists over whether or not nuclear power is the wrong move in terms of solving our energy issues.

Horatio Algeranon said...

"the types of things that scientists are good at figuring out don't have much to do with the types of things that politicians need to decide."[Sarewitz]

Can you say "nookyalur weapon", Mr. Sarewitz?

Sure, Horatio knew you could.