Cadiz, scientization, and how Dan Sarewitz almost drove me out of journalism

Ian James at the Desert Sun this week took on the journalistic task of rounding up the back-and-forth over the politics, law, policy, and science of the Cadiz project, a proposal to pump groundwater in the deserts of Southern California and ship it off for use in coastal plain cities.

Ian, who’s earned a reputation in recent years as one of the smartest reporters working on the science of climate and water in the arid southwest (the American Meteorological Society recently honored him for his work) does a solid job on the politics, law, and policy, and then does the best any of us can hope to do on the science in a situation like this, which is punt.

The science questions here are two, which overlap: would the project harm sensitive desert ecosystems and environments, and would it really yield the amount of water its proponents claim. The project’s supporters say their science clearly supports “no” to the first and “yes” to the second. The project’s opponents say the opposite.

Three years ago, I made a prediction: science won’t settle Cadiz. We have more science. The question isn’t settled.


In 2004, political scientist Dan Sarewitz wrote a paper that changed the trajectory of my journalistic career: How science makes environmental controversies worse. I had long imagined that my job as a science journalist was to understand what science had to tell us about important political and public policy questions and then explain it in a way that would help influence positive outcomes. By that time in my career (a couple of decades in) I had spent a lot of time at the effort, and it didn’t seem to be going well. Sarewitz’s paper offered an explanation:

[S]cientific uncertainty, which so often occupies a central place in environmental controversies, can be understood not as a lack of scientific understanding but as the lack of coherence among competing scientific understandings, amplified by the various political, cultural, and institutional contexts within which science is carried out.

The more I learn about groundwater hydrology, the more I realize it is an epistemological task steeped in genuine uncertainties. You can’t really look underground directly, data’s sparse, resulting answers you get are based really importantly on the modeling assumptions you make. And so it is not surprising under any circumstances to have different scientists come up with different answers. You sorta expect it.

Sarewitz isn’t making a postmodernist argument that permits any science to be true (ick that). Rather, it’s an up front recognition of the inherent limitations of the scientific enterprise:

[N]ature itself—the reality out there—is sufficiently rich and complex to support a science enterprise of enormous methodological, disciplinary, and institutional diversity. I will argue that science, in doing its job well, presents this richness, through a proliferation of facts assembled via a variety of disciplinary lenses, in ways that can legitimately support, and are causally indistinguishable from, a range of competing, value-based political positions. I then show that, from this perspective, scientific uncertainty, which so often occupies a central place in environmental controversies, can be understood not as a lack of scientific understanding but as the lack of coherence among competing scientific understandings.

Sarewitz maps what happens in the face of those limitations to the political and policy process. In “scientized” debates, political actors with differing value position attempt to win the argument about policy by winning the argument about science, picking from among competing scientific interpretations that which supports their value position. Importantly, Sarewitz is not arguing that the question of who pays for the science is influencing the results (though that’s an issue), but rather that this is an inherent problem.

It made the journalistic task seem hopeless to me for a time, but quitting wasn’t really an option. I had no other useful skills, though I did start joking about taking up welding. And there are, in fact, science-politicized debates (like the more egregious folks unwilling to deal with real climate science) where journalism can help. But Sarewitz also pushed me toward a bit more humility about how the nature of science related to the things I could accomplish with my journalism. And it forced me to look more closely at the value propositions underpinning debates over the genuine uncertainties in science-related political and public policy questions, helping me to sidestep some of the problems posed by scientization.

When I took to social media today to point to the connection between Sarewitz’s ideas and Ian’s Desert Sun story, the flack for Cadiz had this response:


Kinda made my point for me.


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