There ain't no rules around here! We're trying to accomplish something!

The Politics of Science

In Policy on March 2, 2009 at 4:19 am

Just a few points in response to Janice’s post.

The Tierney article is really about climate policy, at heart, so let’s talk climate. It seems to me that the situation is the following.

1.) Climate change can’t be faced without an understanding of science. Unless they want to be willfully blind, policymakers are going to have to listen to geologists, atmospheric physicists, engineers, ecologists, and so on, to make reasoned decisions.

2.) There’s significant and legitimate disagreement about our priorities, when it comes to climate change. These disagreements are more about values and politics than about science. How much do we care about the long run compared to the short run? How much do we want to sacrifice in present economic growth to protect against unlikely but catastrophic risks? How much do we care about the developing world compared to the rich world? How troubled are we by the prospect of government subsidies and mandates interfering with the market? How troubled are we by being required to consume less?

3.) The majority of climate researchers (at least, those who make their policy opinions known) favor strong emissions regulation. There are dissenters, but they are in the minority, and often affiliated with conservative think tanks.

Now, if your answers to the questions in 2.) lead you to oppose strict reductions in carbon emissions, then you’re in trouble. You have no choice but to listen to scientists — but the scientists are mostly lined up against you! If you’re Tierney, or Pielke, you rail against the “politicization of science.” But scientists — still more, scientists in Washington — are human. They can’t make themselves apolitical if they’re giving political advice.

Rather, I think we need to keep in mind that to some extent, science has its own political and philosophical slant. I’m going to hypothesize a little bit here, so bear with me. An academic scientist has dedicated years of her life to the study of nature, often forgoing a more lucrative career in the private sector, and frequently collaborating with colleagues from around the world. This suggests that scientists would be likely to
a.) be long-term thinkers
b.) have a sympathy for preserving the natural world, especially the particular subject of their research
c.) be inclined not to value financial ambition very highly
d.) not be very nationalistic; inclined to identify as closely with foreigners as with Americans

These are personal sympathies, or cognitive biases, that I think would make scientists favor different public policies than the average U.S. citizen. They’re also biases that would make scientists tend, on balance, to favor climate change legislation. (Confession: I’m an aspiring scientist, and I share all those biases to some extent.)

If we want to, as Pielke says, be honest brokers, we need to be honest about the fact that scientists have their own politics. It may be to some extent unavoidable that policy decisions advised by scientists will be scientists’ policies — technocratic and reliant on expert judgment. And there are limits even to expert knowledge; nobody in Washington is smart enough to really know which emerging clean technology promises the most success in thirty years. Maybe the challenge for policymakers is to know when to listen to scientists, and when not to.

  1. I agree with you on #2–I think that Pielke was most concerned about this distinction between political debates, to be had by politicians/sociologists/anthropologists/historians/economists, and the scientific debates to be had by scientists–people should stick with their comfort zone, but like you say, there’s no way that politicians can create good policy without implementing technologies and models that have been created by scientists to describe and understand the world. You can’t really negotiate with asteroids, as Stephen Colbert said. (I really watch his show way too much.) Scientists, being citizens, form a certain demographic that has invested interests in its country (and the world at large).

    So yes, scientists are self-interested and have certain cultural and political tendencies, as with any other group–I guess perhaps their tendencies just happen to be the topic of discussion because of the high profile nature of the science/non-science divide in the U.S. over the last few decades (and which has only recently combusted because of the partisanship that has leaked into certain scientific points of view). Rather, I should say that politicians have picked and chosen scientists that happen to make them look right. I guess that’s old news.

    Like you say, this is all made worse by the fact that scientists may have expert knowledge, but I think it’s mostly expert knowledge about the fundamental unknowns. Scientists have debates because they disagree about what the unknowns could be, whereas most of us don’t even understand what the source of the inconsistencies are. There’s this Bloggingheads dialogue that mentions the ridiculous and irreconciliable divide between the economists who favor tax cuts and fiscal policy, and economists who favor spending–the gist was, if they don’t know, how could the rest of us even hope to know?

    And another problem with scientists: they really like pretending that the world fits around their theories like a glove.

    But what are you going to do? People are people.

  2. I would add (e) that scientists tend to be people who know how to play ball. Although there is a fantasy out there about the bold, maverick scientist, the reality is that you make your advisor happy and get grants and tenure by knowing the right things to say. Fundamentally, a today’s scientists are no different from the court astronomer of medieval times. Who knew that his job security came from pleasing the king.

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