Does Science Even Matter?

In an oh-so-reasonable-sounding article on Slate, Daniel Sarewitz argues the contrary of the position I have been taking recently.

My position is first, that science can no longer depend on the press, or the institutional press office, or pop science media to get important messages out. That much has become blazingly obvious. Second, that certain messages of science are necessary to sound governance, that science is a crucial component of collective decision making in modern society. As a conclusion, it is necessary for science participate directly in public communication. It may not be feasible for science, as currently institutionally structured, to do so.

Consequently, to fulfill its responsibilities to society, science as a culture may need to create new institutions, and certainly science needs to create new career paths. This is necessary so that scientific knowledge is appropriately considered in consequential public discourse.

You would think that would be blazingly obvious too, but Sarewitz makes an argument that inclines pretty strongly to the contrary.

Not to put words in his mouth, his thesis is

A dangerous idea has taken hold in modern politics, and the sooner it is discredited, the better. The idea is that political disagreements can be resolved by science. Its basic logic seems sensible: As good children of the Enlightenment, we should turn to science to establish the facts about problems such as climate change before deciding what policies to implement. Yet the types of things that scientists are good at figuring out don’t have much to do with the types of things that politicians need to decide.

This starts out as reasonable. Lest I be misunderstood, let me concede that science is insufficient to make the sorts of decisions we need to make. Decisions need to be based on values and preferences, as well as on pragmatism, political tradeoffs and competing goals. Science will never trivialize politics; any such claim is ludicrous. But Sarewitz claims that “the types of things that scientists are good at figuring out don’t have much to do with the types of things that politicians need to decide,” in other words he claims that science is essentially unnecessary to politics.

This is the sort of dream world that beltway types actually live in. I am, as Dave Barry would say, not making this up.

It is instructive to look at his arguments. First of all, he notes,

The most wonderful illustration of this mismatch between what science can tell us and what politicians care about is the effort to build a long-term storage site for nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. It’s probably fair to say that, after 25 years and $13 billion of government-funded research, no area of ground on Earth is more studied than Yucca Mountain, yet all of this science has done absolutely nothing to quell opposition from locals and environmental groups. On the contrary, it provided a continual source of new discoveries and uncertainties that combatants could draw upon to bolster their political and legal cases. For example, varying estimates of the amount of ground water flowing through the rocks at the site were central both to claims that Yucca Mountain was safe and that it should be abandoned.

What makes Yucca Mountain such a political quagmire is not the complexity of the science but the way that Congress rammed Yucca Mountain down Nevada’s throat in 1987—an exercise in top-down power politics that provoked profound and unquenchable resentment.

There is spin and there is twist. The above is a horrifying twist on Bill McKibben’s observation that

the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who would like, for a variety of reasons, to deny that the biggest problem we’ve ever faced is actually a problem at all. Three thousand pages (the length of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)? That pretty much guarantees you’ll get something wrong.

The issues about Yucca Mountain are indeed instructive.

Those issues are about the tradeoffs between traditional location-based politics and a world of national needs and global consequences. Whether nuclear power is pursued in the future or not, somebody needs to take the waste we already have. Nevada is arguably the right place for it. That paranoia and resentment results within Nevada is, perhaps, inevitable. That the society cannot manage to settle the question with facts and negotiation is not. To celebrate the failure of factual argument and global implications to enact a Yucca Mountain repository or something similar is to do what beltway types so often do; it is to confuse a problem with an insurmountable principle.

The important conclusion to draw is not that a Yucca repository was rammed down anybody’s throat. The important conclusion is that for purely cultural, totally nontechnical, nonphysical reasons, we cannot implement a technical, physical solution to a technical, physical problem.

The problem is not that reason fails. The problem is that politics fails to be reasonable.

Blaming reason for the failure of politics is about as backwards as you can get something.

Yet, Sarewitz manages to do so:

When people hold strongly conflicting values, interests, and beliefs, there is not much that science can do to compel action. Indeed, more research and more facts often make a conflict worse by providing support to competing sides in the debate, and by distracting decision-makers and the public from the underlying, political disagreement. In such cases each side will claim to have the scientific high ground.

When it comes to questions like these, political beliefs can map nicely onto different ways of selecting, assembling, and interpreting the science. If you believe that government should intervene in markets to incentivize rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, you can justify your preference with data, theories, and models that predict increases in extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts, and floods. And if you believe, as do many conservatives, that government intervention in markets and in social arrangements should be kept to a minimum, you can find factual support for your views in the long-term unpredictability of regional climate behavior, the significant economic and social costs associated with shifting to more expensive energy sources, and the historical failure of government efforts to steer large-scale social and economic change.

In other words, we beltway types, journalists, politicians, lawyers and such, do not have the competence to distinguish realistic arguments based on evidence from trumped-up arguments based on cherry picked evidence . (Indeed, cherry picking is our job description. We come up with a point of view, and troll the internet for supporting facts. For some reason (!), in the past ten years we have gotten quite good at it.)

Consequently, you guys might as well not bother, because we are running the show, and we can’t pick the serious thinkers from the ringers to save our lives.

Well, yes, these guys are, for the moment, running the show. And indeed they can’t tell science from the most absurd woo-woo. True enough.

Somehow the conclusion that we might as well not bother is not the one I reach from that.

Update: Sarewitz had a far less irritating piece at Nature a few days ago. Tom Yulsman and RP Jr have already had their say on that one. The point on the politicization of science is a real concern. But the Slate article takes it much too far.

Update: Fleck defends Sarewitz. And again.

Go Ahead, Act Like a Scientist

Being a scientist is not a putdown. How strange, in these years of the revenge of the nerds, this time of huge respect for engineers and programmers, that scientists are urged to be ashamed of ourselves.

Today, Revkin says

The more I talk to social scientists and psychologists about humanity’s growing pains in its current population and appetite surge, the more it’s clear that the “market failures” described by economists examining environmental issues derive from fundamental patterns of behavior rooted deep in the brain.

Right. So, what grownups do, in circumstances like that, is exert cognitive pressure from the frontal lobe to overcome atavistic appetites. This means that the reason to stop emitting carbon is because we have way too much carbon sitting around loose already, not because there will be an economic boom from making windmills.

Speaking as a boomer, the self-indulgence of the boomer generation was curative of a very restrained and fear-driven generation that came before us. We called them “uptight”. But we sold the society on emotional fulfillment at the expense of responsibility. We did too good a job of curing what ailed us.

If we don’t revisit the notion of collective responsibility and sobriety soon, our descendants will pay a heavy price. The people to lead the way to restoring this balance would be scientists acting very much like scientists do.

Long Strange Trip

It’s been a little less than three years since I started discussing the failures of climate communication on this blog. In that time, it has gone from an obscure obsession of my own to the front pages of newspapers around the world.

It’s been about a year and three weeks since I moved from being exasperated about how the press has been handling climate science to being genuinely angry. It’s been about a year and a week since my anger landed me fifteen minutes of fame on the Glenn Beck show.

So it was about a year ago that I came to understand that truth had enemies. Others have been investigating the details of how the enemies of truth corrupted the conversation. I for one find that particular topic of less interest – the fact that the conversation has been corrupted is clear, and the underlying methods are fairly obvious once one starts to look at it from an informed perspective.

That anniversary is corresponding with a unique moment in the history of climate science, and perhaps an unprecedented moment in the history of science altogether. The entire field is now fed up, and now understands its responsibilities in ways that it has neglected in the past. Whether this will suffice is another matter entirely.

I have personal affection for a few journalists and admiration for many, as I do attorneys and economists, and yet for all three fields I have limited tolerance for their traditions and their ethical outlook. Indeed, attorneys and economists have played their parts in the present absurd flirtation with cataclysm. But, pace Shakespeare, it’s the journalists I would be done with first.

See, here is my old pal Andy Revkin up to his old tricks. “Should Scientists Fight Heat or Stick to Data?” A good question. So, whom does he consult? Matt Nisbett and Randy Olsen. I’ve already professed myself shocked at the shallowness of Nisbett’s understanding of the problem. He comes to the table with:

When scientists and advocates, motivated by these biased perceptions, take action by responding with tit-for-tat attacks on climate skeptics, it takes energy and effort away from offering a positive message and engagement campaign that builds public support for climate action and instead feeds a downward spiral of “war” and conflict rhetoric that appears as just more ideological rancor to the wider public.

These positive messages include redefining climate change away from just being an environmental problem, to being a national security, public health and economic problem, with policies that would lead to societal benefits in these areas rather than just perceived economic sacrifice, hardship, and costs. The recent Luntz report provides evidence in support of this message strategy.

Um, ‘scuse me? Scientists do not offer positive messages, campaigns, or appeals to public support. That isn’t our job, y’know. Scientists offer evidence. Now he goes on to say

Moreover, when scientists inaccurately presume that climate skeptics have singlehandedly swung polls in the direction of public disbelief — and then adopt a warfare posture and “fighting back” strategy against skeptics — they call further media attention to the original “ClimateGate” event and feed the preferred narrative of skeptics.

which may look like good advice, but see, four months ago we had every expectation of ignoring the whole thing, except perhaps for supporting Dr Jones, the immediate victim of the crime. (Yeah, there was a crime, remember?) So Nisbett offers advice for a more reasonable world than the one we find ourselves in.

On the other hand, Randy Olson gets it the other way round.

What [Nisbett has] written here is great, it’s accurate, it’s admirably dispassionate, but it’s also written with the assumption that the general public is a bunch of heartless robots. There comes a point where the public DOES want to see the science community stand up for themselves.

and there I agree with him, but again there’s this odd disconnect with reality as any person educated in science would see things:

Gore is ultimately “a scientist” when it comes to communication instincts. You can see it played out in his movie and two books as he’s slowly come to the realization that you need something more than information to reach the masses.

Um, wasn’t the problem with Gore’s movie that it was a bit shallow and manipulative? That certainly is my problem with his recent campaigns. So here we have contrary advice, accepting the idea that scientists are involved in “campaigns” but suggesting we had better get emotional. Olson, remember, wrote Don’t be Such a Scientist, which advises us to ignore matters of substance. Fine, and policemen should ignore the law and firemen shouldn’t be so hung up on combustion.

In case you think there’s not really a pattern here, check out Revkin’s latest, wherein Tom Yulsman makes some sensible observations, like this one:

Some of it also reflects what I take to be a truly breathtaking naïveté. For example, George Woodwell says this: “If the opposition opens an issue, make the issue theirs, and so hot that they have to let go.”

As if a group of climate scientists can make it “hot” enough to force the likes of Marc Morano to let go. Even if they could, they’d basically be turning themselves into Morano. And a lot of good that would do for their standing in the eyes of the public. (Moreover, any scientist who thinks he or she can beat Morano at his own game is in for a very rude awakening.)

but concludes thus:

We’ve had more than 20 years of communication of climate science. … And thanks in part to Web 2.0, today there is more varied and voluminous communication on the subject than ever before, including some very effective efforts by scientists. Yet with all of that communication about climate science, we still do not have substantial policy action. So might it be that the problem has not been a failure of a communication, but a failure of policy?

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m all for more and improved communication of climate science, both by scientists and journalists. But I do not believe this is the key that will unlock better policy outcomes.

So the fact that the public has the story drastically wrong is not the fault of how the story has been communicated? Exactly whose fault is it then?

And now, people are advising scientists to take the advice of “PR professionals”. Well, I am pretty much unconvinced.

So where does this leave us? Basically, deeply confused. We really are left to our own devices and our own ethics. The fact is that the message nature tells science is clear enough, and the message science tells society is monstrously garbled, largely by the intervention of malicious agents with political skills, and somewhat by the peculiar ethics of intervening institutions, notably politics including political activism, law, economics and journalism. The beltway professions, in short.

These are people who believe in culture, and disdain physics. They may, in unguarded moments, refuse to cross the street in front of a speeding truck, displaying that they still maintian some respect for physical reality, but they have little concept of physical reasoning. While there are a few important exceptions, in theior professional lives they understand and convey the problems of physics, chemistry and biology as aspects of human culture. Consequently, the connection between genuine experts and interested amateurs is mediated by people who understand neither, and the opportunity to stir up massive distrust is greatly enhanced.

The solution is for trained scientists to learn to write, not for journalists to learn to explain science. They are culturally misaligned. They do not report the facts. They report people’s opinions about the facts. But the physical world is not swayed by clusters of opinion.

It is time to reinvent journalism altogether. This is well known. Steven B Johnson cogently argues that each journalistic niche will have to develop its own institutions and way of doing business.

And here is the secret sauce:

Science journalism in the future will mostly be conducted by scientists.

I plan to participate vigorously.

Blogging is good but blogging is not enough. The best conclusion I can offer is what Dr Andrew Sun said on last year in the consequential month of March:

Scientists deal with only hypothesis, by means of experiments. We live with hypothesis, with uncertainty, with the unknown. The public do exactly the opposite. How would you expect the readers be pleased with a science news that fails to confirm or ensure anything for them?

No one is really interested in science except scientists. Modern society is only trying to eliminate this hopeless situation by creating additional interesting by-products of science. But improvement from this situation should not start from trying to present in any way the ongoing frontier research. Steps should be followed instead. A systematic, long-run agenda is needed. Unfortunately, no media dedicates itself in this career. They sell themselves to the readers, not just us. Why should they listen to only us instead of the majority of the readers? The majority of taxpayers, not the professional minority, lead the society, especially in the more democratic western world. That’s why scientists have no reason to blame others. Instead, they should stand outside their comfortable, automatic justice of peer-reviewed community and face the vast majority of public by themselves. Otherwise more shits happen.



George Woodwell, Director Emeritus and Senior Scientist at Woods Hole Research Center (corrected, thanks TB):

The response to the [email] vandals is to bury them with the data and experience of a century of scholarly research and analysis. The information that is important in making the decisions as to how to manage our world is unequivocal and must be advanced, not as questions at the edge of scientific knowledge where scientist like to dwell, but as the facts that they are, facts as immutable as the law of gravity. The climatic disruption is not a theory open to a belief system any more than the solar system is a theory, or gravity, or the oceanic tides, or evolution. This approach is uncompromising, partisan in the sense of selected for the purpose. It is not a lecture to undergraduates; nor is it ecology 101. It is a clear statement of what is required for government to do its job in protecting the public welfare. The scientific community has a firm responsibility in this realm now. This is not the time to wring our hands over the challenges to hyper-scientific objectivity, the purity of scholars, and to tie ourselves in knots with apologies for alleged errors of trifling import.

This is Joe’s exclusive, so click on over to Climate Progress for the rest of the message. Comments to CP please.

Texas Pride

I am immensely proud of the Texas climate science community today, and particularly of my young boss at the Institute for Geophysics, Charles S. Jackson, who helped lead the charge to get this clear, forthright, substantive and substantively article into the Houston Chronicle today, along with first author Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences, Texas A&M University; Katharine Hayhoe, research associate professor of atmospheric sciences, Texas Tech University; Gerry North, distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences, Texas A&M University; André Droxler, professor of earth science and director of the Center for the Study of Environment and Society, Rice University; and Rong Fu, professor, Jackson School of Geosciences, The University of Texas at Austin.

In summary, the article asserts:

• • The global climate is changing.
• • Human activities produce heat-trapping gases.
• • Heat-trapping gases are very likely responsible for most of the warming observed over the past half century. No one has been able to propose a credible alternative.
• • The higher the levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, the higher the risk of potentially dangerous consequences for humans and our environment.

Emphasis added.


The entire faculty of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M as well as the Climate System Science group at the University of Texas have issued their own statements endorsing these views (; In fact, to the best of our knowledge, there are no climate scientists in Texas who disagree with the mainstream view of climate science.

These are strange times indeed, but the article is something we in Texas can take pride in.

The only sad part is that this totally factual article is published as an “opinion” piece.

Still, as Brad Johnson has pointed out, this is exactly the sort of thing climate scientists ought to be doing. Though of course I am also ashamed that it is we who have had the opportunity to do so, I’m almost giddy with delight that it’s Texans who have the gumption to show the way.

Monbiot’s paradox

Quoth George Monbiot here, with a tip of the ol’ Stetson to Brian Dupuis of Alberta:

Arthur C Clarke remarked that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. He might have added that any sufficiently advanced expertise is indistinguishable from gobbledegook. Scientific specialisation is now so extreme that even people studying neighbouring subjects within the same discipline can no longer understand each other. The detail of modern science is incomprehensible to almost everyone, which means that we have to take what scientists say on trust. Yet science tells us to trust nothing; to believe only what can be demonstrated. This contradiction is fatal to public confidence.

There are lots of other interesting observations in the remarkable piece linked above, but this one is something of a revelation.

pic: George Monbiot by George Monbiot via Wikipedia, Creative Commons.