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.