Stuff I Wrote Elsewhere

I’ve argued in the past that my enthusiasm for the “scientization” meme comes from my experience covering all sorts of controversies, large and small, that play out in the same way: competing data used to support conflicting political positions. This doesn’t just happen on the big stuff, like climate change. It’s an intrinsic problem, found in nearly every political debate I’ve ever covered where data plays a role. Today’s case in point is the Albuquerque debate over red light cameras. It’s not merely “something … to be avoided in debates.” It’s intrinsic to how debates are conducted.


  1. John, my point is that that the only utility of the scientization concept with respect to climate change is at the level of debate. In the article you linked, note that Sarewitz does not address what might be the most useful parallel to climate change, i.e. tobacco. That the climate change denial “industry” has its roots in tobacco (with a minor side-step into CFCs) is no coincidence. Note in particular that Sarewitz does not discuss the implications of a strategy based on conscious denialism. Another complication for the discussion as it pertains to the U.S. is the role of the conscious anti-environmental ideology that the Republicans made part of their majority strategy. One other useful point is that Sarewitz applied the concept of scientization to the climate change issue at a very interesting stage (from the policy analysis POV), which is after the climate science community had become convinced of the need for action, at about the same time that the environmental community has become convinced of the need to *start* shifting their focus toward the issue (a process that is only now nearing completion), and definitely before there was much more than a minimal change in public awareness (including media and policy makers). Maybe Sarewitz or others have touched on some of these flaws and missing pieces elsewhere, in which case I’d appreciate any pointers you might have, but I hope I’ve sketched out my views my views well enough to be given a little credit. There’s more, but I’m already behind on my promised detailing of the sins of RP Jr., so it’ll have to wait.

    BTW, I should mention that while I have no formal public policy background (other than some undergrad poli sci courses), I have acquired a considerable informal background in political theory and public policy coincident with having spent about 30 years working on getting new (mainly environmental) policy concepts adopted at the local level (a couple of which have had regional/national implications).

  2. Steve –

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    I’m interested in your reference to what you call “conscious denialism”. By this do you mean that you believe the other side in this debate is being consciously dishonest? In my experience covering scientized debates, each side generally believes the other side is being intentionally dishonest. This is one of the salient characteristics of a scientized debate.

  3. John, that was a literal reference to the “industry,” i.e. the think tank denizens who make their living that way. Of course they’re only a small percentage of the total population of denialists (the typical one of whom is probably a Limbaugh dittohead), but can fairly be said to be leading that side of the struggle. Not even all of them are conscious liars, so I think it has to come down to naming individuals: Fred Singer, Steve Malloy, Pat Michaels and Iain Murray are a good start. There’s a whole other set of folks in the think tanks who are essentially Lysenkoists in that they backed into their view of the science via their need to shoehorn it into a Randian world view, which in the case of most is probably honestly come by (although I think they’re nonetheless very prone to lie about the particulars). A third category are those who ended up working in the think tanks because they needed a job and just don’t care whether or not what they’re peddling is true. Many of the corporate executives who fund the think tanks probably also fall into this category.

    I think the first category lacks any equivalent on “my” side. The second also has none (that I can think of), although one could argue that that might not be the case if the science weren’t so heavily tipped in one direction. There probably are examples of the third one, although I don’t know of any.

  4. Your third category (“don’t care whether or not what they’re peddling is true”) would be lawyers; that business model considers they are doing their job ethically by crafting the ‘strongest possible argument’ — for values of possible including imagined and “arguable” not limited by the available science.

    It’s hard for someone attached to facts — whether journalist or scientist — to really appreciate that in legal practice they are mere speed bumps to work around in crafting an ‘arguable’ position.

    For lawyers, “arguable” can merely mean an assertion that there is thought to be a better than 50:50 chance* that a court, if asked, will agree with the position. On such foundation many tax shelters were built (and washed away by the courts) over recent years.

    Public Health Rep. 2005 Mar–Apr; 120(2): 200–208.
    Tobacco industry manipulation of research.
    Lisa A Bero

    Full text and extensive reference list here:

    Brief snippet:

    “The release of millions of internal tobacco industry documents
    has given the public health community insight into
    the inner workings of the tobacco industry and revealed its
    previously hidden involvement in manipulating research.16
    However, analogous information is not available for most
    corporate interests. Among the few other analyses of internal
    industry documents, Markowitz and Rosner describe how
    the chemical, asbestos, and lead industries manipulated research
    about the harms of their products.73–75 Their analysis
    reveals that these industries used many of the same strategies
    as the tobacco companies to create controversy about
    the health effects of tetraethyl lead, asbestos, polyvinyl chloride,
    and other chemicals.”


    * Accuracy-Related Penalties for Taxpayers Involved In Tax Shelter …
    Definition of Tax Shelter for Purposes of IRC § 6662(d) … states that the tax advisor concludes that there is a better than 50 percent likelihood that the …,,id=138562,00.html

Comments are closed.