Presenting science

2007-03-17

in M.Phil thesis, Politics, Science, The environment

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.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan March 17, 2007 at 1:46 pm

You’re right, and it is difficult to say precisely what I mean to. Essentially, it is that scientists cannot have it both ways. They cannot be the Guardians of the Sacred Truth while also being actors with specific interests and agendas. You cannot assert ‘Science as Truth’ and ‘Science as Strategic Behaviour’ in the same quotation without raising some big questions about how science works and what it is for.

R.K. March 17, 2007 at 1:33 pm

I think Hardaker is being pretty sensible.

Lots of people have attributed Hurricane Katrina to climate change, partly because it provides a great story for the media (and Gore’s movie). Of course, the science tying hurricanes to climate change isn’t rock solid. Furthermore, even if a strong general case tied one to the other, doing so in the specific case of one storm doesn’t make much sense.

Coming out and saying loudly that Katrina was caused by climate change, only to later be disproved, would rightly cost you some credibility. The idea that scientists should be conservative in what they say makes sense.

Milan March 18, 2007 at 4:56 pm

US ‘blocks environment progress’

Ministers stressed that the meeting had shown that there was a good deal of consensus on the scale and nature of the problem of climate change – but a lack of agreement on the tools to tackle it.

. November 15, 2007 at 11:32 am

Should scientists act as advocates on [the climate change] issue?

MacCracken: If you want to avoid dangerous or catastrophic kinds of consequences such as the loss of Greenland, you’ve to get on a path where emissions from developed countries are going down by around 80% by 2050. You have to do that. And we’ll have to get developing countries to go along as they can, and go down further after that. So I think scientists need to speak out very clearly on the exact details of what the policies are.

Pershing: I think that the scientific community has been under-represented in the dialogue and has taken a pass when it should have taken a step forward. It has basically proposed that others know better as to what should be done, and that’s not evident. If we take the past 20 years where there has been complete and total inaction, the scientific community in the first IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] assessment report laid out explicitly the nature of the problem and made proposals as to what ought to be done. Twenty years later, very little has happened. So I suggest the scientific community needs to be much more aggressive.

Braithwaite: I think in an ideal world, they shouldn’t have to be advocates; their voice should be heard anyway. When their voice isn’t being heard, then that’s a different situation. I’m not going to comment on the United States, but in the United Kingdom, I think if we tried to put together public policy without basing it on the best available science, we’d get ourselves into trouble very quickly.

Grumet: The one other point that I will make is that, in our system, there is such a profound notion of there being two sides to every issue. I think where the scientific community finally rose up with some outrage — and outrage among scientists is kind of modest annoyance among the rest of us — was when the real scientific community was fully convinced of the basics of the ecological reality, but there were one or two folks out there pushing a different [sceptical] side. Yet the situation would be consistently set up as one scientist thinks this and the other scientist thinks something different. And finally I think about a year ago the scientific communities kind of got fed up with that.

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