Imagine a discourse:
Unless either scientists become kings in their countries or those who are now called kings and rulers come to be sufficiently inspired with a genuine desire for scientific knowledge; unless that is to say, political power and science meet together … there can be no rest from troubles, my dear reader, for states, nor yet, as I believe, for all mankind…. There is no other way of happiness either for the state or for the individual….
Now … we must, I think, define … whom we mean by these lovers of science who, we have dared to assert, ought to be our rulers. Once we have a clear view of their character, we shall be able to defend our position by pointing to some who are naturally fitted to combine scientific study with political leadership, while the rest of the world should accept their guidance and let science alone.
Ok, so I switched out philosophers with science and scientists, but Socrates raises an interesting question. Should we be ruled by scientist-kings? Should scientific knowledge be king?
Of course, I’m being deliberately provocative. I don’t really believe that our rulers should be scientists, although I’d be quite happy to elect scientists who ran for public office. I’d hate to see working scientists sully themselves in the mire that is politics and I know — I’ve worked as a writer for a major politician in my province.
The thought of a Ste
vphen Hawking or Michio Kaku or Carl Sagan or *gasp* Richard Feynman having to compromise their scientific standards and love of knowledge in order to campaign for office and try to please the public as well as those who hold the purse strings is too horrible to contemplate. Our lives would be so much more impoverished if they were to do so. So we believers in democracy must keep science and politics as separate as possible because scientists should be doing what they do best — search for knowledge.
However, science should be given a very prominent place in the policy process, and I would hazard to say that in some policy matters, science should trump other concerns. That’s right. Trump other concerns. The difficulty is knowing when it should. I’d say that we are getting to the point where science must trump other concerns when it comes to climate change. I rue the day future generations look back at us and shake their heads in wonder and disgust that we didn’t use our most valuable tool — science — to determine what to do and how to respond to global warming. That we didn’t act sooner because we refused to listen when scientists warned us.
In much of the literature you’ll read on public policy, you’ll come across arguments about “evidence-based decision making”. It’s a buzz-phrase that I see and hear and read all the time in my work – why, even today I wrote those very words into a document that will become the basis for new policy. The claim that good public policy rests on sound science and reliable evidence rather than other interests is almost cliche. I would even venture to say that most policy wonks truly believe in this as a goal, but the reality of making policy and developing programs to implement that policy is very different.
There is a constant battle between political expediency and scientific integrity in the policy process. Put bluntly, politicians try to balance their need and desire to retain power with their ideological commitments, seeing their political and social values implemented with their pledge to serve the public good. You campaign on a platform and then once in power, you try to implement whatever you can of that platform, recognizing that you have to get re-elected and don’t want to win a skirmish only to lose the war. So political expediency wins out over evidence-based policy very often, probably too often if the truth were known. There are some checks and balances in place to try to ensure that public policy is made in a rational manner, but there are many ways to circumvent these checks and balances and get what you want in the end, even if it does contradict or ignore the science.
I would argue that this is the case with climate policy and energy policy today. Recent news items are cases in point:
Polar Bear Science: We all know that oil companies and government agencies that promote economic development hate polar bears. They get in the way of their projects. If the public hears of drowning polar bear cubs, starving polar bear mothers, and other horrors that scientists claim are due to global warming, the public will support policies to protect the arctic wilderness and legislation to enact a carbon tax to fight global warming.
What to do, what to do… Undermine the science. Get some yahoo from blogland to write an FOI request for the scientists’s research and makes claims about numbers being fraudulent and the government sends a
schmuck non-expert out to investigate. A schmuck non-expert who can’t even add, subtract, multiply or divide well enough to do simple percentages. Who isn’t a scientist or even an expert.
You can read the sorry transcript here.
CHARLES MONNETT: Okay, and, and just so I know how to put my answers, do you have scientific credentials of any sort? Uh, what, what, what level of scientist am I speaking with here that’s going to be evaluating my science?
ERIC MAY: No, we‟re criminal investigators.
CHARLES MONNETT: Criminal investigators.
ERIC MAY: With the Inspector General‟s Office.
LYNN GIBSON: Right.
CHARLES MONNETT: So I assume with no formal training in, in science or biology or –
LYNN GIBSON: That‟s correct.
ERIC MAY: That‟s right.
But wait, there’s more. Here’s an interesting exchange on math that reminds one of Abbot and Costello:
CHARLES MONNETT: 11 percent of the bears. Then you just invert that, and you come up with, um, nine times as many. So that‟s where you get the 27, nine times three.
ERIC MAY: Where does the nine come from?
CHARLES MONNETT: Uh, well 11 percent is one-ninth of 100 percent. Nine times 11 is 99 percent. Is that, is that clear?
ERIC MAY: Well, now, seven of 11 – seven of what number is 11 percent? Shouldn’t that be – that’s 63, correct?
CHARLES MONNETT: What?
ERIC MAY: So you said this is –
CHARLES MONNETT: Seven/11ths this is –
In, in our, in our area there, um –
– and, therefore, we should have seen
ERIC MAY: No, no, no, no, no. This, this is, this is 11 – seven is what number of 11 percent?
CHARLES MONNETT: Seven?
ERIC MAY: Yeah.
CHARLES MONNETT: Is what number of 11 percent?
ERIC MAY: Eleven percent, right.
CHARLES MONNETT: Well, I don’t know. I don’t even know you’re talking about. It makes no sense.
Who’s on first? Read it and weep.
In another case in the news, a government scientist is muzzled because her work on salmon health makes politicians uncomfortable.
Munro says the e-mail record shows that the decision to silence Miller was made at the last minute. In messages to and from officials in Ottawa, “you see them getting more and more frustrated,” she says. Right before the Science paper was scheduled to go live online, DFO pulled its name from the joint press release it had written with the University of British Columbia (UBC). Miller was left apologizing to reporters with whom she’d scheduled interviews, leaving co-authors Scott Hinch and Anthony Farrell of UBC to explain to reporters what salmon leukemia and the possibility of a virus actually meant. Some media have become enamored of the idea of a virus, even suggesting a government conspiracy to save itself some embarrassment should its trade practices prove to be spreading it.
Another scientist is muzzled because his work makes them sweat. It has to do with past climate change — flooding in the Younger Dryas.
From that article in Science:
In 2010, National Resources Canada prevented geologist Scott Dallimore from speaking with reporters about his research on a 13,000-year-old flood.
According to the Science Insider, several Canadian government agencies, including National Resources Canada and Environment Canada have muzzled scientists. This is the result of changes in media policy, resulting in a drastic reduction in news coverage of related science.
Climate scientists have also complained of muzzling by the government, and leaked documents from Environment Canada showed that a drastic decline in coverage of climate change by the Canadian press between 2007 and 2010, due to Environment Canada’s own new media policies. “We’ve been dealing with this for years,” says Stephen Strauss, vice-president of the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA).
Scientists are not free to discuss their work with the press and public for fear their findings contradict policy positions – it is inconvenient science. Lines must be prepared for media people so they can answer the questions properly. Talking points must be written just so. The claims are that the scientist is too busy to meet with journalists directly. The report, published in a very reputable journal, is an embarrassment to the government that wants to ignore science.
Finally, funding is cut to the Environmental Assessment Agency of Canada – a 43% cut to spending. The agency involved in assessing large-scale projects to ensure their impacts on the environment are adequately understood and mitigated for, where necessary. That there are several large-scale projects coming down the pipes that have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions and bear on the issue of climate change is no coinkydink.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is looking at a 43.1 per cent cut in spending, dropping from $30 million in 2011-12 to $17.1 million in 2012-13, according to the agency’s planning documents.
This cut follows a 6.9 per cent, or $2.2-million, drop in the funds government allocated to the agency in 2010-11.
Along with the budget cuts, the 17-year-old agency is facing a one-third reduction in the number of full-time staff, despite the government’s commitment to improving the environmental assessment process laid out in its June speech from the throne.
With an increasing number of large-scale mining projects coming down the pipe – including Stornoway Diamond Corp.’s foray into Quebec’s first diamond mine, Taseko Mines Ltd.’s gold-copper mine in British Columbia, and the Enbridge oil pipeline – now is not the time to start taking risks, said Stephen Hazell, an environmental lawyer.
The evidence of humanity’s role in climate change is very strong and growing stronger with each year. Yet, we see governments like that of Steven Harper’s Conservatives in Canada deliberately undermining science through funding cuts, through muzzling scientists, and other means in order to either implement an anti-regulation ideological commitment and/or turning a blind eye to the science so that the filthy lucre — and dirty shale oil and gas — can flow.
Despite the majority of Canadians accepting that climate is warming and humans are primarily to blame for a significant portion of it, and despite the fact that they support action, and despite the preponderance of scientific evidence supporting this position, year after year, Canada has failed to meet its own emission reduction targets and has received a failing grade on climate change.
When science says something is an increasingly certain reality and risk, and government ignores that risk, and when the public supports a policy and the government ignores the majority, we can conclude that public policy is not the result of a sober consideration of the science, a review of the evidence, and respect for science.
Instead, it is primarily a political process — it is the exercise of power by those who have it to implement their own political and economic and social agenda – and of course, let’s not forget, get re-elected.
It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that in the question of whether we should respond to the threat of climate change, science should trump other interests.
Here’s my suggestion — those alligned against political action on climate change — those who want to delay or prevent climate legislation, whether because of financial interest or political ideology, know this. They know that Joe and Jane public have to trust the consensus science and largely do.
What then is to be done about that inconvenient science?
Disable it. Discredit it. Cast doubt on its findings. Push the issue of uncertainty. If that doesn’t work, question the motives and morality of the scientists. Talk about individuals, not theories or facts. Play up the social and personal and talk about motives. The public, unable to judge the actual science, will be equally able to judge the validity of the critique of the science. Plus, they are titiilated by the personal.
Skepticism in science is good. Cynicism towards science isn’t. I would argue it will be our downfall as a species if we squander this marvel of our human mind.
Over time, the scientific method and peer review have been tremendously successful even when there have been wrong turns and dead ends. Pretty much every advance in our modern societies is premised on scientific findings and the use of these findings in the development of new technologies.
When we’ve trusted consensus science, even when its not perfect, we’ve done marvels — we’ve gone to the Moon using Newton’s theory of gravity even though it wasn’t entirely correct – but it was good enough. Our probes have reached the outer reaches of the solar system, we’ve imaged the echoes of the universe’s birth, harnessed the powers of the atomic forces, cured diseases, understood the workings of our genome, comprehended the origins and evolution of life on our earth. None of these sciences are perfect, nor are their findings 100% certain. Yet they have been good enough and sound enough to do marvels.
As Feynman wrote:
“Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.”
What climate contrarianism and denialism have done by fomenting a war over science is prevent us from getting to a place of action, seeing clearly what we face, and then making the best decisions we can based on the best science at hand. It will never be perfect. There will always be uncertainty because science is always open to new evidence. It is not dogma. It is never finished.
Bogus skeptics, contrarians and denialists have bogged down the debates by focusing on the credibility of the peer reviewed science — the very thing lay people must trust so they can make the best decisions when it comes to electing leaders and supporting public policies.
Whether it’s the questioning of MBH98/99, or of Hansen’s GISS, or Jones’s CRUTemp, whether it’s Watts’s project to review every US thermometer site, or Lucia’s reconstruction of CRUTemp using GHCN raw data, or the errors in the IPCC’s reports, or the hack of the CRU servers, the peer reviewed science consensus is being challenged — not, as it should be, by peer reviewed science and credible scientists, but by laypeople and amateurs and vested interests, on blogs and in non-science and non-peer reviewed journals, by front organizations and scientists for hire.
Unless the skeptical investigation of consensus science takes place using the scientific method and unless their hypotheses and claims are subject to peer review in legitimate journals, it’s nothing more than a crass move to forestall action, a pleasant form of mental masturbation for its layperson practitioners and potentially damaging to science — and more importantly, to ourselves and our ability to respond appropriately to the threats we face.
ETA: Interesting that someone from the DRE (Defence Research Establishment) seemed interested in this post, according to my webstats IP identification and analysis service. They’ve visited before, but not for quite a while. Hiya!