Accepting the science

From Saturday’s Washington Post:

“We have to deal with greenhouse gases,” John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Co., said in a recent speech at the National Press Club. “From Shell’s point of view, the debate is over. When 98 percent of scientists agree, who is Shell to say, ‘Let’s debate the science’?”

The interesting bit here is where I tip my hat for the link to the story: NEI Nuclear Notes. The nuclear industry seems remarkable enthusiastic about the scientific consensus on climate change. Perhaps it is because, as Roger Pielke Jr. recently noted, “There is no such thing as decisions driven by science. Decisions are always driven by values.”


  1. The reason Roger’s observation resonates with me is that it reflects an empirical reality that I’ve witnessed for years in my journalistic work, but which it took me a long time to grasp. I kept thinking, “If I only explain the science to the public, good decision-making will result.” And, over and over again, I kept having this approach fail, as people embraced or ignored the bulk of the science based on whether it agreed or conflicted with their values.

    We might wish that it were otherwise, but it is what it is. This doesn’t mean it isn’t worth tilting at the windmill, but the expressions of surprise, and the scientists’ naive assumptions about what ought to happen, grow tiresome.

  2. Steve-

    The way I think about it is that science informs a policy decision, but does not dictate action. You and I can agree completely on the science of an issue but disagree on what to do about it because of value differences. In that sense, I agree with RPJr on this one.


  3. It’s important to remember there are different ways of knowing and in decision-making Science is only one of them.

    And John’s excellent point: the expressions of surprise, and the scientists’ naive assumptions about what ought to happen, grow tiresome is worth a mention, too.

    We don’t train our scientists to effectively communicate their work to others. This is a large part of the problem.



  4. John, it’s taking much longer than we would like, but development and dissemination of the scientific case for global warming is very much having the desired effect. It’s taking an entire generation, but in the absence of hit-over-the-head impacts that are impossible for people to ignore in daily life it’s not really a surprise that it would take that long. My estimate (and of course I will take no bets on this) is that it will take another fifteen years or so for policy to finally be commensurate with reality.

    Andrew, the distinction I would make is that science may not dictate a particular policy option to solve the climate problem, but at some point (and I think that point has been reached) scientists can (and should) say that the scientific case is closed and that a policy change is needed. They should also be clear as to which options are actually up to the task at hand. This latter role is essential given the tendency of politicians to prefer pretend solutions. Scientists can play such a role and still be “honest brokers” of a sort, but rather differently from what RP Jr. seems to have in mind. (BTW, I should mention that the use of the term “honest broker” is IMO horrible. To the extent that it comes into common usage, there arises the unavoidable implication that those who are not playing such a role are dishonest. If successful, RP Jr.’s campaign on this point can only marginalize those climate scientists who need to be most engaged in the public debate.)

  5. Why is this embrace so surprising? When you look at the science and the economics of power production, nuclear generated electricity sits in a very pivotal position right now. It’s the only supplier of baseload generation that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases — and that’s through the complete lifecycle where total emissions are comparable to hydropower.

    Our industry believes we have a role to play if your goal is to help constrain carbon emissions while still delivering baseload power. And we want to talk to anyone who is willing to listen.

  6. but at some point (and I think that point has been reached) scientists can (and should) say that the scientific case is closed and that a policy change is needed.

    If I may,

    we are living in the midst of 3-4 generations of reductionist scientists trained in the Platonic and Cartesian methods of scientific inquiry. This requires the subject be separate from the object**. We’re not going to see a sudden, wholesale acceptance of scientists suddenly speaking up about stuff. Look how ready the IndyFundeds were to SwiftBoat Hansen (NewsMax smears!). I agree it must be done, but society’s boat takes a long time to turn. Jus’ sayin’ (& hoping I don’t sound like RP Jr).



    ** This, IMHO, is the root of our problem, but not a discussion for today.

  7. Eric –

    Thanks for dropping by. (And thanks for the great blog!)

    I wasn’t expressing surprise. As a journalist who writes about both climate change and nuclear issues, I’ve had long discussions with people in both fields about the nuclear power-climate change nexus.

    My intent was to point y’all out as an example of how people’s values and interests drive their embrace of scientific positions in these political/policy debates. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re not abusing the science in the process – which your comment above clearly shows you’re not. In fact, it’s to be encouraged, as ultimately values and interests are central to the positions people take on these issues. Best that we’re all up front about their role.

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