How Science Becomes Politics

April 25th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The climate issue provides an incredibly rich and textured body of experience to explore issues of science and politics. All participants in the political debate over climate policy work hard to define the issue in terms of science. This by itself is of course not so surprising, as anyone who has seen the old television commercial claiming that “4 out of 5 dentists recommend Acme gum for their patients who chew gum” will be familiar with the appeal to scientific authority. What is most interesting to me in the case of the climate debate is the different roles that scientists might play in the political debate over climate, and how scientists have chosen to position themselves and their institutions on the climate issue.

An interview last week on Democracy Now helps to illustrate how advocates try to conflate scientific and political issues, but more importantly, it highlights some of the challenges facing the scientific community as providers of information to policy makers. If scientific debate equals political debate, then we will find that science has simply become another political battleground, and we will lose much of the positive contributions of science in policy (see this PDF for discussion). And as we have asked frequently here of late, should the climate science community position itself more like an issue advocate or honest broker?

The Democracy Now interview focused on the recent feature on climate change politics in Mother Jones magazine that we discussed here last week. In the interview, Ross Gelbspan, a vocal issue advocate, makes the following assertion:

“… the head of this intergovernmental panel on climate change, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, said recently that we have about a ten-year window to make very, very deep cuts in our carbon fuel use, if, quote, “humanity is to survive.” This is a scientist. He speaks normally in very conservative and measured language. So, to hear that kind of talk is very, very troubling.”

I follow the IPCC pretty closely and we have occasionally commented on Dr. Pachauri’s advocacy-oriented statements, but I am unaware of any statements made by Dr. Pachauri referring to the end of humanity if fossil fuel use is not dramatically cut. There are two possibilities here, neither of which is particularly attractive, and both imply choices for the climate science community.

Possibility #1 – Mr. Gelbspan is accurately quoting Dr. Pachauri, which would suggest that the IPCC is continuing down the path of transformation from honest broker (circa 1990) to advocate in support a particular approach to dealing with climate. We’d welcome a reference to Dr. Pachauri’s quoted words by Mr. Gelbspan if any Prometheus readers are aware of it.

Possibility #2 – Mr. Gelbspan is not accurately quoting Dr. Pachauri, which would suggest that he is misusing the imprimatur of the IPCC in
pursuit of political advantage, by suggesting that the IPCC (or at least its leadership) has in fact endorsed the approach to the climate issue that Mr. Gelbspan prefers.

If for a moment we assume that Mr. Gelbspan is misquoting Dr. Pachauri, it would seem to be in the best interests of the IPCC to correct the misattribution, as Mr. Gelbspan is a well known and widely cited commentator on climate
politics. Under this scenario, if the climate science community were to simply ignore such misuse of their authority for purposes of advocacy, it raises legitimate questions about the role that climate scientists wish to play in the political debate. Context matters here as many climate scientists have shown little reluctance to speak out in response to certain commentators (compare, e.g., reaction to Michael Crichton). And the context becomes even more relevant when a climate scientist favorably invokes the work of Mr. Gelbspan, reinforcing a connection between climate science and a particular approach to climate politics. Under this scenario, letting misstatements stand while selectively correcting others contributes to the conflation of climate science and climate politics.

These dynamics help to illustrate how an observer (e.g., Gelbspan, Crichton, others) of the political debate on climate might come to (or even seek) the conclusion that climate science and politics are one and the same. From this vantage point, climate scientists become issue advocates whether they like it or not. For some climate scientists this outcome may be perfectly acceptable (see earlier reference to Madisonian democracy), but if climate policy needs consideration of new and innovative options (see earlier reference to Schattschneiderian democracy) then the climate community’s collective actions may limit its future contributions to the climate debate to simply a tool of marketing for agendas now on the table. For issue advocates this may be a desirable outcome, but the question that I have for scientists is – is this the direction that you really want science to go?

5 Responses to “How Science Becomes Politics”

  1. Bob Says:

    Try (originally published in the lndependent/UK).

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  3. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Bob- Thanks for the link. It is quite amazing really. I am less troubled by the fact that Dr. Pauchuri made these remarks (I am sure that he sincerely believes in their substance) than I am about the overall silence about the way that IPCC science has become transformed into issue advocacy among the rank and file in the broader community of IPCC scientists. Any reactions from IPCC scientists?

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  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Blogs are better than memories. It has been pointed out to me that last January we made reference to the Independent article that cited Dr. Pachauri’s comments about human survival. Clearly in the Democracy Now interview Ross Gelbspan is accurately quoting Dr. Pachauri. This whole episode of Dr. Pachauri’s statement, its amplification by an issue advocate making a partisan, political argument (and at the same time playing fast and loose with climate science, e.g., claiming attribution of damaging 2004 hurricanes to CO2), and a prominent IPCC scientist favorably citing the issue advocate should raise some questions about the profoundly mixed messages being sent by the climate community about the role of the IPCC in supporting climate policy and politics. Is the job of the IPCC to compel a particular political action or to inform decision makers about their available choices and cthe onsequences of those choices? Who exactly does the IPCC serve?

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  7. AHW Says:

    The logical flaw in your ‘honest broker’ paradigm is when an issue has overwhelming evidence that one side is correct. For instance, an honest broker might set out both sides of an arguement that the world is flat. One can find plenty of evidence on either side of that so-called debate. However, the overwhelming evidence is that the world is round. Entertaining the flat-world theories with equal importance is a disservice to the sound science of round-worlders. Similarly, there are truly some scientific arguements that have compelling one-sided evidence that is not trying to be issue-advocacy.

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  9. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Dear AHW- Thanks much for your comment. I have tried to clearly distinguish between “honest broker science” and the “honest broker” of policy options. You are absolutely correct that in some instances there is incontrovertible scientific evidence. And such consensus is indeed one of the factors that allow honest broker science to be effective (the other factor being low political conflict). But absent low political conflict a consensus or lack of uncertainty on science is not a sufficient criterion to compel a particular action. For example, scientists might conclude with certainty that, say, trasfats cause heart disease. However, this information does not tell us at what restaurant we should eat. This is for several reasons, most importantly is that some decision makers may value a meal today rich in transfats over its contribution to their chances of getting cancer in the future. (And it gets more complicated when we consider that the individual’s decision may have broader societal impacts.) Such values disputes are at the heart of many issues (like climate change) that are putatively about science (I discussed this is a paper last year on ‘Abortion, Tornados and Forests”). Climate change is a great example of this dynamic. Many act as if winning a scientific debate will compel a particular set of actions. The irony here is that the scientific debate has been won (at least in the eyes of many scientists, the public and policy makers), yet the issue remains in gridlock. Even with such experiences, many persist in asserting that a particular set of scientific facts should compel a certain action. The reality is that action is determined by many factors other than science, and continued efforts to compel action through science is an important factor in the politicization of science. On the relationship of science and action, see the special issue of Environmental Science & Policy that I co-guest edited last year with Steve Rayner.