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.