Those Climate Scientists Deserved It, Acting All Smart Like That

Roger Pielke Jr always has something interesting to say about climate change, and today's post about the politicization of climate science was no exception. Piekle refers to a recent article in National Journal that “Nineteen of the 20 Republican Senate nominees who have expressed an opinion on the widespread scientific consensus that greenhouse gases are altering the world's climate have declared the science either inconclusive or dead wrong, often in vitriolic terms.” Piekle notes that policy has become increasingly hyper-politicized, there's nothing inherently 'conservative' about not believing in global warming, except as a badge of tribal identity. Reconstructing how climate science came to be viewed in such a politicized light would be an interesting exercise, but as it related to contemporary issues, Pielke calls for a de-politicization of climate science. Referring to an editoral by Michael Mann about the Climate-gate emails he says:

“Do Mann and the climate science community actually think that directly linking battles over climate science to upcoming national elections will depoliticize climate science?!

Not only does the public get the politicians that it deserves, but it seems that climate scientists get the politics that they deserve as well. Until the scientific community shows some willingness to take actions that reduce rather than reinforce the political intensity of the climate debate, they are acting as willing accomplices in its hyper-politicization.”

Really, Dr Pielke? Should climate scientists just lie back and take the “vitriol” in the hopes that global warming will stop being a political football? I believe that Piekle is trying to recover a model of science and the state that no longer applies. As Sheila Jasanoff explains, the contract of post-WW2 American science was that the state would supply funding to scientists, and scientists would supply knowledge to legitimate the decisions of the state (Jasanoff, Technologies of Humility: Citizen Participation in Governing Science, 2003) This contract was rendered void by 1990 because of deviant science (see David Baltimore and AIDS), political demands on scientists to legitimate regulations on objects that were poorly defined, like microparticulates and GM foods, and the growing awareness by scientists of the political and social implications of their work.

We can't turn back time to those halcyon days of the early Cold War, so what now? The choices break down into more involvement, or less. Scientists could decide that certain topics are too politically risky to investigate. I believe this course to be a bad one, as the realm of the non-political is microscopic, perhaps only the most abstruse areas of theory are free of politics. And even if scientists relinquish politics, the demand for expert knowledge is too ingrained in American democracy. Whether they want it or not, scientific knowledge will be used and misused by politicians.

The alternative, engagement, is highly risky. It requires the organization of scientists as political actors, from a national to local levels. It demands the scientists act as a class to bestow and withhold the favor of expert knowledge on their representatives. When you play the game, you might win, but you also might lose. Scientists could find their fortunes tied to one party, and a host of issues completely unrelated to science. They could find themselves on the losing end of an economic downturn, or a culture war, guilty by association.

By their words and actions, Republican candidates across America have rejected the favor of science, so what interests do scientists have in supporting them? Let them rule from the gut, let's see how far they get in a society that no matter how much it denies it, relies on scientific knowledge. But from here, scientists face an even more momentous choice. Tactically, their only allies are the Democrats, but Democrats are only marginally more credible on scientific issues. Thomas Friedman (420 Drink KoolAid EVRYDAY) says that we're primed for the rise of a third party. Does science have sufficient credibility and unity to form the core of that party?


  1. So, I think its clear by now that the way our elections work, only two parties can be supported.

    This, effectively, forces us to use only one dimension of politics. Hopefully this is some sort of maximally informative dimension. Presently it seems to be the dimension of insanity.

    You can't support a third party. You also can't tie science to a part unless science suddenly becomes the most politically important factor, in which case both parties need to be culturally and economically indistinguishable, with the only difference being how well they apply science to policy. But, since we're rather focused on culture and the economy, we just can't support the additional ( practically orthogonal ) dimension of "science", only crude projections of science onto the major political axis.

    woo PCA/ICA analogies in politics ( think this reasoning is actually correct ).

    So, without fundamentally changing our voting practices, we aren't going to get politics to healthily and reliably interact with science. We need to make room for a third party by modifying our political structure, if we want to see this happen.

    I suppose the other alternative is to just line up both parties to agree on science. But, as mentioned here, practically _any_ difference gets polarized in our current climate, so a minor disagreement on science policy rapidly destabilizes to "science" and "anti science". Maybe there is some policy change that can switch this from an unstable to a stable equilibrium ?

  2. heh .. we could create separate governments for each political axis.

  3. Good analysis. Historically, science policy is one of the few things both parties can agree on. R&D funding has held at 10%-12% of Federal discretionary funding since the end of the Apollo program (http://www.issues.org/23.4/sarewitz.html). Of course, we have no idea what this current crop of Republicans will do.

    Since we have a two-party system, the axis is very important, and this is subject to manipulation. The current narrative is Democrats:Regulations<--->Republicans:Liberty, with regulations continually being cast as bad. Obama et al are trying D:(???)<--->R:Greed which isn't flying so well.

    The problem with Science<--->Ignorance is that science isn't a well formed political position (though it can hold some), and probably can't be. Some people like Transhumanism<---> Relinquishment. Any other thoughts?

  4. The problem with any dichotomy like science<--->ignorance is that I worry the dichotomy only exists as a sort of ideograph to bolster, as you say, tribal identity. The reality of a concept like science is much more complex. Killingsworth and Palmer posit in Ecospeak a more complex view of environmental beliefs. They offer as an alternative to the media and political babble about the environment (what they call ecospeak) a continuum of three perspectives, each of which uses a complex network of rhetorical appeals to the idea of "nature," complicating the position of the groups (democrats, republicans, universities, farmers, etc etc) aligned on this axis by analyzing the hegemony, opposition, tension, and direction of appeal of these groups. Maybe we can see science as those same three equidistant points as well: Science as object, science as resource, science as spirit. It seems to me like we elect our officials based on this false dichotomy and then find regulation difficult to accomplish because only politics operates in this dichotomy, not the real world.