No Political or Scientific Purity


The Los Angeles Times is running a superb op/ed by Arizona State science and society professor Daniel Sarewitz and American Enterprise Institute fellow Samuel Thernstrom on the political misuse of science as illuminated by the Climategate affair. Here are some selections:

As two scholars with different political orientations but common concerns, we have each worked to challenge conventional wisdom that has undermined public understanding of the climate change problem. Many Republicans have been too reluctant to acknowledge strong evidence of human-caused warming and the need for prudent policies that could reduce its harmful effects. Democrats have let their own political judgments and values infect climate science and its interpretation, often understating the uncertainties about the timing and scale of future risks, and the tremendous costs and difficulties of effective action.

Yet both parties have agreed, although tacitly, on one thing: Science is the appropriate arbiter of the political debate, and policy decisions should be determined by objective scientific assessments of future risks. This seductive idea gives politicians something to hide behind when faced with divisive decisions. If "pure" science dictates our actions, then there is no need to acknowledge the role that political interests and social values play in deciding how society should address climate change….

We do not believe the East Anglia e-mails expose a conspiracy that invalidates the larger body of evidence demonstrating anthropogenic warming; nevertheless, the damage to public confidence in climate science, particularly among Republicans and independents, may be enormous. The terrible danger—one that has been brewing for years—is that the invaluable role science should play in informing policy and politics will be irrevocably undermined, as citizens come to see science as nothing more than a tool for partisans of all stripes….

Can science and politics recover from the damage done in the name of scientific purity? We believe the weight of scientific evidence remains sufficient to justify prudent action against climate change—but we are equally aware that the consequences of both climate change and climate policies remain highly uncertain.

The choices are extraordinarily difficult; the costs of action, and inaction, are potentially momentous. No one can know what the "right" decisions will be, but the e-mail controversy reminds us that imperfect people, not pure science, must decide that question. This is a job for democratic politics, informed by, but not shackled to, a pluralistic, insightful and imperfect scientific enterprise.

My own take on "The Scientific Tragedy of Climategate" is here. Read the whole LA Times op/ed here.

We are indebted to frequent H&R commenter Neu Mejican for the link. Hat tip to you sir.