The right’s new climate change lie: It’s all the scientists’ fault

Conservative hucksters argue scientists are politicizing their work. They're wrong -- and climate change is real

Topics: sustainability, Climate Change, The Right, Global Warming, Science, Editor's Picks, Books, , ,

The right's new climate change lie: It's all the scientists' faultNeil deGrasse Tyson (Credit: AP/Richard Shotwell)

Some scholars blame scientists at least in part for why we are not motivated to act on climate change. They claim that many scientists have discredited themselves by politicizing science. On this view the politicization of science by some climate scientists has compromised the credibility of the entire enterprise. John Lanchester writes:

[T]he scientists…are…trying to sell us something. And we the public might be undereducated, but we know not to trust entirely someone who is trying to sell us something. The impression that some scientists are consciously trying to make us more afraid is a potent aid to the sceptics.

Some claims about the politicization of climate science are part of the denial machine. Others, however, come from scholars who accept the broad outlines of mainstream climate science.

In a 2010 book, Roger Pielke Jr. claimed that “[c]limate science is a fully politicized enterprise, desperately in need of reform if integrity is to be restored and sustained.” “Climategate,” the episode in November 2009 in which thousands of documents were stolen from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, revealed scientists “who saw themselves as much as activists as researchers,”  … “plotting to corrupt the peer review system.” According to Pielke Jr., the theft exposed a “clique of activist scientists” engaged in a “coup against peer review.” He went on to accuse a broad range of scientists and public figures of trying to scare people into taking action on climate change or advocating such scare tactics. This unlikely group includes Al Gore, Thomas Schelling, and 20 other Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry, economics, peace, and literature; Australian professor of public ethics Clive Hamilton; anyone who tries to show that there has been “dangerous interference” with the climate system; and whoever decided to open the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference with the film Please Help Save the World. Pielke Jr. goes on to claim that “influential and activist leaders of the [climate science] community have sought to achieve political outcomes…by using and shaping science as a tool to defeat their political enemies.” Those guilty of this charge include Princeton scientists Steve Pacala and Rob Socolow, Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen, Carnegie scientist Ken Caldeira, and Pennsylvania State scientist Michael Mann. According to Pielke Jr., scientists’ political ideology makes them “susceptible to politicizing their science.” He cites a 2009 poll in which 62% of geoscientists identified themselves as Democrats while only 4% called themselves Republicans.

One remarkable feature of Pielke Jr.’s discussion is its shrillness. “Clique,” “coup,” and “plotting” are the kinds of terms usually reserved for organized crime syndicates, terrorist organizations, and other conspiracies against the public good. The repeated use of the word “activist” mobilizes a characteristic trope of right-wing ideologues. The term is typically applied to judges, who like scientists are supposed to be neutral when carrying out their duties, but all too often, on this view, betray their professional responsibilities. Even someone who is sympathetic to the claim that political considerations sometimes find their way into climate science might shrink from Pielke Jr.’s characterization of climate science as “a fully politicized enterprise.” He makes such institutions as the National Center for Atmospheric Research sound like an outpost of the Democratic National Committee, or perhaps something even worse.

What is most troubling about Pielke Jr.’s account is its lack of balance. As we will see, the politicization of science by a handful of climate change deniers and their patrons is extremely well documented, and continues to be a major obstacle to the United States adopting effective climate policy. Yet in a 26-page chapter on the politicization of science, Pielke Jr. devotes only one paragraph to the behavior of those “opposed to action on climate change.” Their worst offense seems to be “[blowing] out of proportion papers at odds with the views of most other scientists.” If only.

Throughout the chapter, Pielke Jr. confuses scientists’ motivations with their science. For example, he quotes Pacala, reflecting on a paper that he published four years previously:

The purpose of the stabilization wedges paper was narrow and simple—we wanted to stop the Bush administration from what we saw as a strategy to stall action on global warming by claiming that we lacked the technology to tackle it.

This passage shows that Pacala wanted to bring science to bear on what he regarded as a bad argument against policy action, not that the science itself was “politicized” or that Pacala was “shaping science as a tool to defeat…[his] political enemies.” Pacala’s science, like all science, stands or falls on its own merits; the intentions, purposes, motivations, or background beliefs of the scientist are irrelevant to the soundness of the science. In this case not only did the paper in question survive peer review (which, as we’ve seen, Pielke Jr. values greatly), but it was published in an extremely prestigious journal, Science, and is one of the most widely cited papers in climate science and policy.

The confusion of scientists’ motivations with their science is an important mistake. If we were to fault all the science that is motivated by a desire to produce some extrascientific result, there would not be much that escapes criticism. Newton claimed that in writing the Principia, “I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity.” Maxwell, in a letter to his wife, mused that “the scientist in union with Christ has an obligation to do such work as will benefit the body of Christ.” Darwin’s interest in human origins was apparently motivated at least in part by his passionate anti-slavery convictions. Einstein’s failed quest for a unified theory was deeply affected by his belief in a certain kind of God. He wrote in a famous letter to Max Born,

Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the “old one.” I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.

What motivates much of the concern with politicizing science is the thought that scientists are supposed to tell us what is the case, not what we ought to do. When they cross the line from description to prescription, they are guilty of politicizing science.

While there is truth in this thought, it is much too simple. Scientists, like doctors, lawyers, and teachers, are not only professionals, they are also citizens, parents, neighbors, friends, and lovers. In these roles and as individuals they have moral and political beliefs, religious attitudes, and cultural commitments. Navigating these complex responsibilities poses questions of professional ethics. But whatever the correct way of integrating or balancing these diverse dimensions of responsibility, it is certainly not the case that climate scientists must remain silent about climate policy, any more than that economists must refrain from providing policy advice about the economy. On the contrary, we want those with scientific expertise to actively participate in policy debates to which their science is relevant. Some climate scientists have strong views about climate policy, and this may contribute to motivating their work on particular problems. But neither this, nor expressing these views in correspondence, conversation, or even in manifestos is any sort of ethical lapse, much less evidence that they are “politicizing science.” Conforming to the canons of professional ethics does not mean forfeiting one’s right as a citizen.

Indeed, some people think climate scientists should be more active in policy debates. Evelyn Fox Keller writes about scientists that:

They need to redouble their efforts to make their arguments, their doubts, and the reasons for both their confidence and their concerns intelligible to the non-specialist citizen. They need to combat, piece by piece, the misrepresentations brought in support of attacks on their scientific integrity, and to show readers why the popular accounts and even the naming of “Climategate” are so misleading…they are best equipped to take on the task, and their responsibility as scientists obliges them to do so….

This too can be overstated. Although Fox Keller does not go there, some advocate scientists plunging headlong into the struggle to improve the world. While they may grant that science may not be able to directly solve policy problems, they still think that scientists can solve the problems that mere mortals bungle. The thought is something like this (parodied a little perhaps). Scientists are ferociously smart people engaged in an incredibly difficult activity. They are in the business of generating timeless, universal truths that have cognitive value. Those involved in “politics” (sometimes used as a generic term for anything normative) seek to negotiate local, contingent, conflicting demands. Science is superior to politics because the timeless is better than the dated; the universal is superior to the contingent; and the cognitive should rule the non-cognitive. Because science is superior to politics, scientists are superior to non-scientists. Anyone who is skeptical about this claim needs only to compare the progress of science with the eternal conflicts of politics and morality. Mutual respect between warring peoples (for example) seems about as likely now as it did centuries ago, but scientific progress permits people’s lack of respect to be expressed with ever greater firepower. For someone who sees the world in this way, it is a short step to supposing that not only can scientists solve our problems but that they have an obligation to do so.

This view commits the crude fallacy of supposing that the patina of science somehow invariably rubs off on scientists. We do not have to believe that there is a profound, unbridgeable gap between science and other human activities to think that this is a mistake and that we should distinguish the political and social pronouncements and maneuverings of scientists from their scientific work. While scientists have societal contributions to make, especially regarding the problems to which their science is directly relevant, there appears to be little reason to think that scientists have any special competence in addressing the purely normative dimensions of environmental problems.

Fear of this headstrong ideology and the desire to keep scientists in their place may motivate to some extent the concern about politicizing science. It is true that some scientists are barely disguised elitists, impatient with process and politics, and apparently confident that if they could get their hands on the machinery of governance, then whatever problems we face could be solved before dinner.

In my opinion, however, scientists have largely behaved admirably in bringing climate change to public attention, and in doing what they can to motivate action in ways that are consistent with their professional responsibilities. In some cases this has come at a high personal price. Sure, supersized egos can be annoying and there have been stumbles and falls, but scientists are not trained to be public figures, and they have been arrayed against vastly more powerful and well-organized forces. In any case-blaming scientists doesn’t go very far toward explaining why we haven’t acted on climate change.

Excerpted from “Reason In A Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed and What it Means for Our Future” by Dale Jamieson. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2014 Dale Jamieson. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Dale Jamieson is Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy, Affiliated Professor of Law, and Director of the Animal Studies Initiative.  He is also Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Dickson Poon School of Law at King’s College, London, and Adjunct Professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. Follow him on Twitter @luvintheanthrop.

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