An Equation for Science in Politics: SM = f(PP)

October 11th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

SM = Scientific Merit
PP = Political Perspective

The September, 2004 issue of Physics Today has an interesting story following up on the recent court decision on the status of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. The details of the case itself are interesting (we posted on this here and here), however I’d like to highlight a few passages from the story on how opponents on various sides of the issue characterize science.

The story notes how an opponent to Yucca Mountain characterizes the court’s ruling:

“Out in Nevada, where Yucca Mountain is located, State Attorney General Brian Sandoval all but pronounced the project dead, saying, “Simply put, Yucca is stopped in its tracks because the court recognizes that the project isn’t rooted in sound science.””

It then notes how a proponent characterizes the same science:

“Back in Washington, DC, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the organization that represents the nuclear industry, was expressing confidence that DOE would be able to meet the “eventual standard” of radiation safety for Yucca and that “the licensing process for the repository will continue without interruption or delay.” NEI added that the “scientific basis for the facility . . . is still sound today.””

Then the Physics Today article comes to this conclusion:

“So the science is sound or it isn’t, depending on whether you are in favor of or opposed to the federal government’s plans to move some 77 000 tons of high-level radioactive waste into the mountain, beginning in 2010.”

In other words one’s perspective on the science is a function of one’s political views. One reaction to this situation, which is very common today in contested issues with a scientific element, has been to call for “more science” as a way to find unassailable proof or factual truth. But what if science does not provide a way out of difficult, contentious, and political issues like Yucca Mountain (or climate change or genetic modification, etc. etc.) and in fact makes things worse?

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