When thinking about the social roles of scientists, it is helpful when they come out and speak on the subject directly. As such, an article in the BBC headlines feed for today is interesting. Basically, it is about some scientists who feel that it is both misleading and a tactical error to play up the catastrophic possibilities of climate change. One, Professor Paul Hardaker from the Royal Meteorological Society, argues:
“I think we do have to be careful as scientists not to overstate the case because it does damage the credibility of the many other things that we have greater certainty about,” he said.
“We have to stick to what the science is telling us; and I don’t think making that sound more sensational, or more sexy, because it gets us more newspaper columns, is the right thing for us to be doing.
“We have to let the science argument win out.”
The first thing to note about this is the implicit position that it is up to scientists to actively tune what they say to the audience they are addressing. This is done for the explicit reason of retaining “credibility” and thus influence. What is suggested, furthermore, is that scientists basically know what is to be done (even if that is more research, for the moment) and that they should be saying the right things in public to keep things on the right track.
Of course, science cannot tell us how much risk we want to bear. While runaway climate change – driven by methane release, for example – may not be a probable outcome, the very fact that it is possible may be sufficient to justify expensive preventative measures. Science can likewise tell us what areas and groups are most likely to be affected, but hardly requires one or another course of action in response. Bjorn Lomborg has famously argued that general increases in foreign aid are the best thing the developed world can do for the developing world, so that the latter will be richer by the time the major effects of climate change manifest themselves.
The position of scientists is a somewhat paradoxical one. In the first place, their influence is founded upon their supposedly superior ability to access and understand the world. Their credibility relies upon being relatively neutral reporters of fact. When they begin dealing with data at the kind of second-order level embodied in the above quotation, they are seeking to increase their influence in a way that can only diminish the original source of their legitimacy. In an area like the environment this is inevitable, but it does render invalid the idea that science, in and of itself, can guide us.