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Climate change and scientific objectivity

In Policy on March 2, 2009 at 10:38 pm

A continuation of our discussion of scientific input into policy debates:

The climate change debate is unusual in that scientists are understood as being almost monolithically on one side of the debate; in the public eye it is common to view it as The Scientists vs. The Politicians.  Part of this is because of the cognitive biases of scientists and the blurring between positive and normative positions, and these are effects we see in other debates, for instance about public health in third world countries.  But part of this phenomenon is structural: even under ideal cases, the debate about costs and benefits are split across disciplines.  One technocratic approach to evaluating climate change would be as follows:

1. Climate scientists estimate the extent of anthropogenic climate change, creating a graph of emitted greenhouse gases vs oC change in temperature, with nice error bars.

2. Economists calculate the costs of any arbitrary temperature change, along with the costs of an adjustment to any arbitrary CO2 emission level.  They find the point at which marginal cost equals marginal benefit.

3. Political scientists refine this estimate by calculating the probable public-choice inefficiencies of government policies.  They formulate the optimal policy, which will probably reduce emissions slightly less than the economists’ model proposes.

Even in this model, when everyone stays inside their disciplinary lines, scientists will be in the position of pointing out the costs of our current choices.  It is up to the social scientists to say yes, this is true, but the adjustment to lower emissions levels is not costless.

Given these roles, and given that scientists, politicians, and journalists all have their own axes to grind, it is not surprising that scientists are often presented as being monolithically on the interventionist side on the climate change debate.  The only way for their research not to be simplified into “Needs Action Now!” is if it claimed that either climate is static or that climate cannot be changed by man, both of which are almost certainly false.  But the sophisticated observer would note that their contribution is but one link on a long logical chain, a chain that needs to be viewed in its entirety to support an argument pro or con.  And honest (and modest!) scientists and journalists would do well to keep that framework in mind.

  1. Thanks for laying this out in a way that makes a whole lot of sense.

    Just one point/question–it’s true that scientists in different fields will optimize their models from different perspective points (just when we thought that this couldn’t get more complicated). I guess the only thing I could add is that, in my experience, 1) political scientists and politicians tend to address problems piecewise (because societies/groups/individuals differ so much that it’s safer to reevaluate your implementation strategies every time), and 2) they erect the needed moral and ethical barriers that allow science to function within socially acceptable boundaries (they set limits to the optimization problems). This is not to say that scientists don’t break up their work into manageable projects (a.k.a. looking for keys under the lamppost), but science is relatively culturally indiscriminate. While the way people go about science may be different, you can agree on what the data is, even if you want to speculate about it differently. In any case, I think that those two differences allows one to distinguish between political and scientific discussions, even if we concede that scientists have their political bents already.

  2. I wish we had someone working “on the ground,” so to speak, to tell us what his/her thought process is.

    On a related note, when I mentioned scientific objectivity to my friend in Frist today, she gave an example that presented the assumption of objectivity at its most tenuous. Prof. Leonid Kruglyak’s lab was planning to publish a paper in Science, but realized that another lab, which had essentially done the same experiment and gotten the same data, had already submitted a paper. Kruglyak’s group thought that the other group had stolen their scoop, but when they read the other lab’s conclusions carefully, they realized that the two groups had come to completely different conclusions. Kruglyak’s lab submitted its paper as well, and both groups’ papers were published in Science. When I hear about stuff like this, I get excited because it’s 1) awesome to have someone else flesh out ideas that you’d never thought of, and 2) scary because it indicates that some of the most visionary people around have a hard time seeing the whole picture. This kind of parallelism probably happens much more frequently than the times that I hear about it via secondhand anecdotes.

  3. I wonder if we can get Thomas Chen on board blogging here. He actually knows this field.

  4. […] off X of these to develop Y therapies?  What is the cost of climate change, and how much are we willing to pay economically to mitigate the effects?  The “judgment of science” can tell us the […]

  5. […] X of these to develop Y therapies?  What is the cost of climate change, and how much are we willing to pay economically to mitigate the effects?  The “judgment of science” can tell us the […]

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