On Cherry Picking and Missing the Point

October 12th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In an op-ed for the Scripps-Howard news service 27 September 2004, Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas cite the paper by Dan Sarewitz that was part of the special issue on “Science, Policy, and Politics” that I guest co-edit for the journal Environmental Science and Policy. They write:

“An upcoming journal paper in Environmental Science & Policy sheds some light on the distortion of climate science by “consensus” politics. Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University, who was on one panel that authored a 2003 climate report for the National Academies of Sciences’ National Research Council (NRC), provides an inside view of the NRC report’s publication process, and details what outsiders may get as “consensus.””

Soon and Baliunas are well known for their political activities opposed to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. In particular they have highlighted the case that the scientific evidence does not justify regulation of emissions of greenhouse gases. As such they have, along with their colleagues and opponents, contributed to the “scientization” of the political controversy on climate change. Here is what Sarewitz has to say about “scientization”:

“Scientization of controversy also undermines the social value of science itself. In the absence of agreed upon values that can inform the articulation of social goals, we cannot recognize the broad range of policy options that might be available to achieve those goals, nor can we possibly know how to prioritize scientific research in support of the goals. Scientific resources end up focused on the meaningless task of reducing uncertainties pertinent to political dispute, rather than addressing societal problems as identified through open political processes.”

So my interpretation of Sarewitz’s paper is that he offers no support for Soon and Baliunas (or, for that matter, their opponents who lean on science) effort to suggest that the “science” compels a particular political outcome. Instead, he is suggesting that we instead need a “third way” on science in politics. A good concise perspective by Sarewitz can be found here.

For Soon and Baliunas to cite Sarewitz in support of their political agenda seems to me to be an example of “cherry-picking” his text and completely missing the main point of his paper.

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