Scientists and Politicization

Have scientists contributed to the politicization of climate change?
Image Credit: Mark Skrobola

It goes without saying that there is an inherent breach of validity when science is influenced by political opinion. Perhaps less explored is a variant of this, wherein scientists align a scientific outcome with a particular political perspective. According to researcher Roger Pielke, this mode of thinking has increased, whether intentional or not, and has played a role in the politicization of climate change. Pielke has dubbed this “the politicization of science by scientists”1. Today’s post explores some examples of this politicization and why it might be dangerous to science.

In 2001, Bjørn Lomborg published a controversial book called The Skeptical Environmentalist. The book challenges some of the most publicized claims about climate change science, stating that while climate change is real and the IPCC the utmost authority on it, climate change as a whole has been overly dramatized. Lomborg goes on to make policy recommendations about a variety of environmental issues. In the aftermath, Pielke noted that many scientists responded by expressing concern about what this would translate to politically (i.e. who gets elected,who has political influence, etc).

To start, Pielke points at the way climate scientists dismissed TSE‘s climate change chapter due to what Pielke says are “minor differences” in scientific interpretation; the real issue, he says, is Lomborg’s very subjective position that the cost of Kyoto is not worth the benefit. Pielke says that by focusing on small differences in scientific interpretation to debunk Lomborg’s policy opinion, scientists are treating science and policy formulation as a single process with one acceptable outcome. At its core, this way of thinking equates winning the scientific debate with winning a policy debate.

Pielke goes on to argue that since policy is very subjective and value-laden, using science to advocate a singular position ultimately means “removing certain options from a debate without explicitly dealing with disputes over values”. That is, policy is informed by more than science, and to use science to support a singular vision erases those conversations about value differences. These conversations, he says, are the essence of political debate and not something science should be involved in. To confuse the two, and allow science to overstep its bounds, ultimately diminishes the role of science as people begin to trust it less and view it as a political tool.

Further, to focus on small details of the science–why one version is correct and thus compels a particular policy–distracts from more meaningful conversations “discussing the worth and practicality of possible alternative courses of action”. The role of science, Pielke says, should be to advise leaders on how science supports or contradicts policy options, not to advocate for particular options. Scientific results can comfortably fit into many policy options, and it is misleading and logically flawed to condemn someone’s opposition to a policy simply because of small scientific differences.

While Pielke estimates that most scientists do not partake in this sort of politically charged rhetoric, his analysis of the Lomborg affair does bring a useful critique to the overlap between science and politics. It is not that science should or even could possibly be separated from politics. Rather, Pielke’s suggestion is one of reflection about the role scientists play in politics and how they can contribute to policy without diminishing their unique professional position.

1 Pielke, Roger A “When Scientists Politicize Science: Making Sense of Controversy Over The Skeptical Environmentalist Environmental Science & Policy 7 (2004) 405–417

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