If Wishes Were Horses…

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.


  1. I don’t object to your observations. (It would be ironic if I did.)

    I just object to taking a description of a particular culture at a particular time as a universal and insurmountable part of the human condition.

    So to me the question is, how do we fix it? I think we have to fix it first, or we won’t be able to fix anything else.

    I realize it’s a tall order, but here we are.

  2. John,
    Thanks for doing this writing. I agree entirely. Zetland and I have been having a long discussion on the underlying forces that drive the observed behaviors.
    I also put a comment on Revkin’s DotEarth blog under the climate change posting along the lines that you suggest.
    My very short conclusion is that the cost of disagreeing with the established science is low enough that people are safe in disagreeing with it. Stated in Zetland terms, the discount rate on unappealing science is 100%.

  3. If you are right, that this is not an “insurmountable part of the human condition”, then go for it. Figure out how to fix the problem. Because I see it as insurmountable, I cannot see how to do it.

    If Sarewitz and I are right, that this is intrinsic to our political system, then the solution is to craft policy solutions that more effectively straddle the value spectrum, avoiding scientization.

    But it strikes me that the latter solution is robust to the uncertainty at the core of our disagreement, and thus offers a useful path forward.

    So for me, I’m spending more time thinking about energy policy and water policy (mitigation and adaptation) and less time thinking about climate science.

  4. jf: “(T)he solution is to craft policy solutions that more effectively straddle the value spectrum, avoiding scientization.”

    What this amounts to is an argument for politicization. That’s fine in the abstract, and of course political compromises can be very satisfying, but the problem is that we are then relying on politics to generate a solution to a problem that has been defined by science. That may work in situations where incremental progress is sufficient, but such is not the case with climate change.

    Of course Eric is right about the discounting, and that’s why a lot of people think society won’t be willing to take the needed steps until the climate beast bites our collective butt in a way that’s impossible to ignore. In the meantime, we continue to struggle for the incremental progress we can get and hope that things don’t get too bad in the future.

    BTW, people who are happy to discount the science 100% also won’t support energy r+d or adaptation on anything like the needed scale.

  5. Thinking more about this, it seems that a necessary implication of Sarewitz’s views (albeit not one he would agree with) is that emphasizing the worst-case scenarios supported by the science will tend to tilt the adopted compromises farther toward solutions consistent with the science. It can only help if people understand (or are told, at least) how bad it could get. For the most part hardly anyone has much of an idea about that, a point nicely illustrated by Michael’s conceptual graph.

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