When Science Gets Political

The journalist’s instinct, as Chris Mooney noted in his recent CJR piece, is to provide balance by quoting someone from each side of a debate. But this has the potential to result in a distortion if, as for example in the case of evolution and creationism/intelligent design, one side is representative of the mainstream of responsible science and the other side is representative of a fringe outlier.

When you have two relatively balanced political forces, as when we’re moving from the science to the policy response, however, the “one from each side” model is probably a responsible way to handle the thing. But what of the case where we’ve moved into the political/policy arena, and we then call on the politicians to explain the science?

Earlier Tuesday, Sen. John McCain called on President Bush to do more to fight global warming. McCain, R-Ariz., pointed to a study on rising Arctic temperatures as further evidence that changes in the earth’s climate aren’t being addressed seriously enough.

“Some of us believe that the accumulation of knowledge argues that we act, rather than continue to accumulate knowledge,” McCain said in criticizing the Bush administration’s climate strategy as research-heavy. Until then, McCain had been playing down his policy differences with Bush to support the president’s re-election.

McCain said the study “clearly demonstrates that climate change is real and has far-reaching implications for society.”

Not so, said Sen. James Inhofe, chairman of the environment committee, who has described global warming as a hoax. In a statement, Inhofe called the study yet another scare tactic.

“Alarmists continue to pursue doomsday scenarios about global warming, but without releasing the basis for their claims,” said Inhofe, R-Okla.

I think we’re back to an unfortunate “one from each side” formulation here, with McCain simply acting as the surrogate for the mainstream scientific view and Inhofe as the surrogate for the outlier. It’d be different if each was arguing the political/policy response, but they’re not. I think the author of this story should have applied “the Mooney test.”

But it’s a problem because of the underlying nature of the debate. As Daniel Sarewitz argues, the scientific contention allows each side to try to grab the high ground in the scientific debate, and we never end up getting to the politics/policy:

Science supplies contesting parties with their own bodies of relevant, legitimated facts about nature, chosen in part because they help make sense of, and are made sensible by, particular interests and normative frameworks.

As a result, journalists are frequently left with nothing to do but cover McCain/Inhofe-style debates over the science itself.