Cold Castles: Bad Climate for Imperial Science
To some people, the world would be a better place if ruled by scientists. They could be like a benevolent oligarchy, employing the knowledge gained by the scientific method for the good of the people. A recent editorial might shake that belief.
In Nature News this week,1 Daniel Sarewitz had some sobering thoughts for scientists who think their views should direct national policy. The context was the Climategate scandal (02/06/2010). He used the incident to call attention to inherent weaknesses in the ability of science to rule the people.
Science has been called on to do something beyond its purview: not just improve people’s understanding of the world, but compel people to act in a particular way. For nearly twenty years, researchers, policy-makers and activists have claimed that climate science requires a global policy agenda of top-down, United-Nations-sponsored international agreements; targets and timetables for emissions reductions; and the creation of carbon markets….
The idea that a mounting weight of scientific evidence would gradually overwhelm ideological opposition to the climate policy regime is not just false but backwards. Science is much more pliable and permissive than deeply held beliefs about how the world should work. Scientific understanding of the complex, coupled ocean?atmosphere?society system is always incomplete, and gives the competing sides plenty of support for their pre-existing political preferences – as well as plenty to hide behind in claiming that those preferences are supported by science. Science can decisively support policy only after fundamental political differences have been resolved.
The crucial point here is that no amount of reform of the IPCC, or rooting out of bad science – or of scientists behaving badly – will begin to correct the flaws in the dominant approach to climate policy. Rehabilitation of climate policy is a matter not of getting the science right, but of getting the politics right.
Science is the handmaiden of politics, not its queen. That appears to be what Sarewitz is saying. Because scientific understanding of complex issues is always incomplete, it will never be able to overwhelm the opposition by the sheer weight of evidence. Whatever party wins can use “science” to support their policies. The picture of science Sarewitz just painted is hugely deflating to the presumptive authority and epistemic privilege normally granted to scientists by the public, but the scientists did it to themselves: “the public legitimacy of climate science [is] under assault” from recent revelations. Along with it, distrust of “political” science is growing: “To those who already distrust climate science because it is used to justify action that they deem ideologically repugnant, such revelations make it look as though the science is systematically, if not congenitally, biased in one direction.”
The Climategate scandal created a “poisoned political climate,” Sarewitz said, that deepened the divide between conservatives, who “typically distrust international governance regimes and the United Nations in particular” and “hate government programmes that demand major wealth transfers,” and liberals, who have an “equally na?ve and idealized version of how the vaunted scientific consensus on anthropogenic warming demanded action consistent with their ideological preferences.” Liberals “counted on science to deliver progressively greater certainty about the reality and consequences of climate change, an approach embodied in former US vice-president Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth.” The unraveling of that certainty in recent months has made “climate rhetoric” take on an increasingly insistent and hysterical tone” like comparing future catastrophes to the Holocaust. That must change. Science is incapable of offering such certainty, Sarewitz argued. He noted how quickly the IPCC incorporated outlandish claims about Himalayan glacier retreat into their report, but then said, “One can hardly imagine that equally bad data tending in the other direction – for example, saying that the glaciers were not retreating – would have made it into the report.” Thus, he undercut the assumed objectivity of science.
Sarewitz appears to favor the liberal position on climate science; he ended by saying that “the imperfect science we already have will turn out to be plenty good enough to support action.” Even so, he had some advice for conservatives and liberals. “With the public legitimacy of climate science under assault, political progress in the United States may now depend on the willingness of thoughtful conservatives to chart a better way forward,” he said. “But liberals and moderates must meanwhile abandon the claim that the science supports only their way of doing things.”
Sarewitz spoke half the time about climate science and half about science in general, suggesting he felt the lessons from Climategate can be generalized: “Science carried out in the context of divisive politics cannot but be influenced by that politics, as the CRU e-mails so starkly showed.” It appears, therefore, that his themes in the editorial can be generalized to four lessons for science and politics: (1) Science does not belong to one political persuasion. (2) Science is pliable to deeply-held world views and can be used to support either position. (3) Because the conclusions of science on complex issues are always uncertain, science cannot convince an opposition on the weight of evidence. (4) Politics should lead science, not the other way around.
1. Daniel Sarewitz, “World view: Curing climate backlash,” Nature 464, 28 (2010); doi:10.1038/464028a.
Darwinians may get upset if we apply these lessons to the creation-evolution controversy, but consider the similarities. Typically, the very same people who have staunchly asserted that the science supporting AGW is unassailable say the same thing about evolution. The same people are typically leftists and atheists. The same people assume the science is on their side. And the same people have a propensity to want to impose their one-party rule on all the people using “science” as a weapon.
So let’s apply the Sarewitz themes to the question of whether schools should be DODO (Darwin-Only, Darwin-Only): (1) Science does not belong to the Darwin Party. There is plenty of evidence debunking Darwinism and supporting intelligent design. Students should have a right to hear this evidence. (2) Because science is pliable, the cases of the Darwin Party bending the rules of science, cherry-picking the data, and forcing evidence to an atheistic, secularist, progressivist political agenda should be exposed. Those who oppose their views should be given the chance to criticize this behavior in public. (3) The Darwin Party has failed to convince their opposition for 150 years. If anything, the opposition is stronger today than it ever has been. The opposition should be allowed, therefore, to debate Darwinists in the arenas where it counts: the journals, the universities, the courts, and the school boards. Scientific institutions should end their one-party rule and accept outspoken critics of Darwinism into their membership. Journals should print papers and editorials critical of Darwinism. (4) Because politics should lead science, it is perfectly acceptable for a conservative school board to end the DODO rules and order teachers to teach the controversy. Indeed, that is the only way to prevent one side from co-opting “science” for a political agenda.
Read Daniel Sarewitz’ article with this in mind and see if there is any reason Darwinism should be treated differently in the public square than climate science. If what he said is correct (and he arguably did not go far enough), Imperial Science has no legitimacy. It must give way to democracy.* For more on the connections between Darwinism and climate change, see this Jay Richards blog.