Daniel Sarewitz had a piece in Slate today arguing that science is not going to settle the current political fight over greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Michael Tobis thinks Sarewitz is wrong.
I agree with Sarewitz. Here is why.
The core of Sarewitz’s argument is that the contest over the science serves to mask the values at stake, as each side seeks to gain the high ground in the scientific debate, believing that by winning the science argument their preferred political/policy approach will of necessity follow.
Sarewitz argues that this is a general characteristic of what he has called “scientized” debates. (See his 2004 paper “How science makes environmental controversies worse” – pdf – for a fuller explication of the argument.)
Solutions come, Sarewitz argues, not when science compels them, but when the solutions align with the perceived values and interests of the actors involved.
Tobis believes it is a failure of the particular actors and institutions involved rather than a general characteristic, that Sarewitz has “confuse(d) a problem with an insurmountable principle.”
“The problem,” Tobis writes, “is not that reason fails. The problem is that politics fails to be reasonable.”
When I entered the profession of journalism nearly three decades ago, it was with the idea that it gave me a chance to help civic processes by helping the body politic better understand hard or complex issues, so political/policy decisions could be based on the best available information.
At every city council meeting, the training ground of many young reporters, technical experts deliver to decision makers their best available data on issues such as traffic engineering. Week after week, I saw political actors seek out their own alternatives to what I reasonably viewed as the best available data when that data conflicted with their values. In the years since, I have seen this happen across scales, from issues as local as whether to install stop signs or speed humps, to regional and state issues like the water supply in New Mexico, to national issues like the appropriate disposal path for various types of nuclear waste, to the current global discussion we’re all so engaged in regarding greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
I have seen liberals side with what I regarded as the best available data on some issues, conservatives on others. In some cases, environmentalists have had what seemed to me the best available data on their side, while in other cases industry has. At the local scale, I saw many issues that didn’t break down on any sort of liberal-conservative spectrum, but instead fell along geographic lines (rural/urban, this neighborhood v. that one, etc.).
My experience with the pattern is sufficiently consistent that I believe Sarewitz has correctly described not a specific problem found in specific situations, but a general principle.
Michael might wish it were not so, but my decades of experience in the midst of political fights large and small suggests otherwise.