02 April 2012

Who has Authority in Political Debates Involving Science?

In political debates that involve considerations of science, it is tempting to characterize scientists who demand particular types of action simply as political partisans. But when scientists make demands of the political process there is often more going on than just an effort to achieve political gain for one's preferred policies. 

At the De Gemeynt blog Jan Paul van Soest explains some of the complexities in the context of the recent Plant Under Pressure conference in London which concluded with a modest "State of the Planet Declaration" (here in PDF):
The body of knowledge in Earth System Sciences in the broadest sense, is impressive. Yet, most scientists at Planet under Pressure feel their knowledge is hardly translated into actions. Below the surface, frustrations can easily be sensed. Frustration may provoke scientists to even stronger formulate their messages, and choose words that fit better in the realm of societal and political discussions than in the scientific domain: ‘We must’, ‘we should’, ‘an imperative to act’, ‘we can no longer afford waiting’ and comparable phrases are frequently used to mask frustrations.

However understandable, these expressions are unlikely to be effective. The audience may think that the scientist using these terms have a political agenda. This perception undermines the scientific credibility, whether the scientist in question has a political agenda indeed or not. My take is: they don’t; most scientist don’t even really understand the nature of politics and policy-making processes. And to the extend they do, they are doing a lousy job in terms of lobbying and influencing the public and policy debate. Otherwise, more scientists would realise that overstating is not really effective in getting the message across.
If van Soest is correct that most scientists don't understand politics and policy-making processes and exhortations to action routinely backfire, then what is going on when scientists are making demands of the political system?

The answer is that for many scientists active in political exhortation the key issue is not "policy" in the sense of "what we should do" but rather "authority" as in "who should determine political outcomes." The appeal to the political authority of science is a common one -- Nico Stehr and Hans von Storch wrote about it in Der Spiegel several years ago (and a translation appeared here, see also Brian Wynne here):
Leading climate scientists insist that humanity is at a crossroads. A continuation of present economic and political trends leads to disaster if not collapse. To create a globally sustainable way of life, we immediately need in the words of German climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a "great transformation." What exactly is meant by the statement is vague. Part, if not the heart of this great transformation is in the eyes of some climate scientists as well as other scientists part of the great debate about climate change a new political regime and forms of governance: "We need an authoritarian form of government in order to implement the scientific consensus on greenhouse gas emissions" according to the Australian scholars David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith their book The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy. The well-known climate researcher James Hansen adds resignedly and frustrated as well as vaguely, "the democratic process does not work". In The Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock emphasizes that we need to abandon democracy in order to meet the challenges of climate change head on. We are in a state of war. In order to pull the world out of its state of lethargy, the equivalent of a global warming "nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat" speech is urgently needed.
Last week in an interview Michael Mann, the Penn State professor of "hockey stick" fame, criticized the Obama Administration on climate cahnge not for the substance of its policies, but rather, for its failure to justify its policies in terms of science. Mann explained:
In Obama’s second State of the Union address, he actually seemed to concede the scientific evidence as a weakness. He argued that we need to pursue a more enlightened energy strategy in spite of the doubts about the science of climate change. … We’ve actually made negative progress from where we were 10 years earlier, when Clinton gave his final State of the Union address. We've gone from the science being the primary reason to move forward to the argument that we should move forward in spite of supposed weaknesses in the science of climate change. So we've retreated to a position of weakness on this issue . . .
From Mann's perspective, the substance of the policies of the Obama Administration are apparently secondary to who is held up as the authority in justifying those actions. What matters is thus political authority rather than policy effectiveness.

The dynamics discussed here are of course not limited to environmental issues. Understanding the current tenor of scientists in politics requires understanding that ongoing debates about science and policy making involve considerations of power politics as much as policy preferences. Of course, scientists who seek such authority are perfect allies to campaigners who seek to exploit the authority of science for their own political gain.

Back at the De Gemeynt blog van Soest offers some useful advice in the form of an alternative perspective on the role of science in decision making, one which is consistent with the discussion found in The Honest Broker:
[C]ommunicating science in terms of imperatives actually undermines the politicians’ sense of responsibility. Although some politicians may be risk averse, the key role of politicians is to choose, not to blindly follow someone else’s view. Who would need politicians if science would automatically lead to policies? It doesn’t. Therefore, imperatives can easily be laid aside, and are likely ineffective. They disempower politicians, instead of adressing them in their key role and responsibility: chosing and negotiating options.
There were some good examples of presenting the science in a more open way, in terms of a variety of options and their consequences, and including the scientific uncertainties. A subsession on fisheries and oceanic ecosystem governance demonstrated that: a science-based mapping of goals, options, timing and uncertainties made clear what the actual choices are, and helps making progress in decision-making, even in a situation where governance is still ruled by the 1609 pamphlet Mare Liberum (The Free Sea) by the Dutch philosopher and jurist Hugo Grotius.

The best and most effective ways of communicating science therefore seem to be those that separate knowledge from decision, that provide policy-makers with options instead of imperatives, and with ‘what if’ instead of ‘will happen inevitably’.
Discussing how the scientific community might relate to policymakers is as important (perhaps more so in highly politicized contexts) as discussing what policy makers "should" be doing in response to various policy issues. Those seeking greater political authority for science may actually be contributing to a loss of trust in institutions of science among parts of society. If science is to well serve democratic governance, then the scientific community needs to move beyond exhortation.


  1. It has been less than a century since the last effort to exploit "science" in order to induce a preferred political outcome. These scientists need to review their history, before they take up arms to reestablish an authoritarian regime.

    The politicians, as well as other civil servants, should recall that their authority is granted to them by the people they serve, and short of an oppressive action, are accountable to us.

    The "scientists" would do well to return to the scientific process, whereby they present physical evidence and arguments to support their assertions, and refrain from seditious exhortations. I wonder if DHS will add them to their watch list. They certainly qualify for at least that level of scrutiny.

  2. This matter has nothing to do with "understand the nature of politics and policy-making processes." The concern is that scientists are shaping their policy prescriptions based on their personal political beliefs. I can't think of a policy prescription for climate change that doesn't predate the science. Sustainability, 'small is beautiful,' anti-capitalist, anti-corporate talk of 'greed,' and the long list of neo-malthusian clap-trap. Add to that the general internationalist leftism, and you have an ideology looking for a problem to solve.

    If people were told that their children were going to be taken away from them at birth and raised by the state because 'science' had proved that it would be better for the children, would you be surprised when parents showed their skepticism of the science?

    The general public didn't care about climate science until they started hearing about the 'solutions.' Far more people are skeptical of the solutions than of the science. But when scientists align themselves with particular policies that are distasteful to the public, they shouldn't be surprised that the people are ready to throw the baby out with the bath water.

  3. Scientists aren't the only 'experts' who tend to be intellectually immature such that they fail to understand that their policy preferences aren't as "obviously correct" as they want to believe. Ministers, doctors, lawyers, et al are in the same boat.

    I heard a minister (one who viewed himself as an authority on morality) give a sermon in which spoke about a hypothetical single mom who clearly deserved to have Congress raise the minimum wage. It was incomprehensible to him that anyone could be a decent person and oppose the raise. Afterward I mentioned to him that the raise might very well cost his single mom her job and that a large majority of economists agree that a raise in min wage increases unemployment among those most at risk. He simply looked at me as if I were from Pluto.

    The lack of self-awareness is an epidemic. Its effects are felt far beyond science.

  4. "This world is the will to power--and nothing besides!" -Friedrich Nietzsche

  5. I suspect this may be related...?

    In a twist of irony perhaps... The National Weather Service has just announced that they will be testing a new warning system designed to combat the "warning fatigue" that has plagued recent alerts where people are not heeding experts advice...


    So the strategy... More shrill and dire language in the warnings. Now messages will be accompanied with phrases like, "mass devastation is highly likely, making the area unrecognizable to survivors", and "Complete destruction of entire neighborhoods is likely".

    That certainly may be effective in the short term... but the 'real' problem of NWS warnings is the combination of a 70% false alarm rate and the public's inability to understand the meaning behind a tornado warning in the first place (where the lead time has to be far enough ahead to allow for some precautions, at a sacrifice of precision-- and it's only for a small amount of your afternoon).

    I suspect this new strategy of yelling a louder version of wolf to get attention will eventually result in an even more callous dismissal of dire warnings.

    Perhaps this is analogous to the climate science world.

  6. CC action advocates lack an understanding of not just politics, but how humans operate in general.

    As Mark B alluded to, they have consistently failed to understand what the true debate is over - competing ideas over what society's and, more broadly, humanity's goals should be. The rejection of science has only occurred as a result of the rejection of the broader vision. Because the science has become so thoroughly coupled to a particular set of goals and policies, any kind of action on climate change is becoming increasingly impossible.

  7. As a young professional I learnt a great lesson from a seasoned director of the board of a company that I was providing an advisory report to. At the conclusion of the report and and the ensuing advice on the way forward, I was generously thanked by the members of the board of directors.

    They promptly adopted a strategy quite different to what we advised. A bit miffed by this I questioned this particular gentlemen on the wisdom of their decision. He smiled and shook my hand again and let me know how much they greatly valued my advice but having taken ALL of the available advice(s) and factors into consideration this was the best way forward for the shareholders.

    The lesson to me was that they were not compelled to take my advice that they'd paid for but had to do what they thought was best for the shareholders. Similarly, just because some 'climate scientists' are over excited about their advice doesn't mean that that is in the best interests of their country folk or the world at large.

  8. James Lovelock emphasizes that we need to abandon democracy in order to meet the challenges of climate change head on. We are in a state of war. In order to pull the world out of its state of lethargy, the equivalent of a global warming "nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat" speech is urgently needed.

    Churchill was proposing sacrifice to prevent authoritarianism, not to bring it about.

    A better analogy for Lovelock would be to propose an "ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer" speech. That was also intended to pull people out of a (supposed) "state of lethargy" and into action.

    Sorry about the Godwin, but is it not odd to see Germans proposing the end of democracy – and then wondering why no-one seems to like what they are saying?

  9. Roger, interesting and perhaps praiseworthy in this measured critique of Lindzen's presentation in London the other day https://workspace.imperial.ac.uk/climatechange/Public/pdfs/Opinion%20pieces/Critique%20of%20Lindzen%27s%20lecture.pdf

    The last lines, my bold:

    'On this basis we reassert that there is a substantial risk of human-induced climate change considerably larger than 1oC in global average this century and beyond. There is nothing in RSL’s talk to cast doubt on the existence of this risk. It is up to policy makers, not scientists, to decide whether governments should take concerted mitigating action to try to reduce this risk. On this we do not comment.

  10. Interesting and timely piece in the NY Times this morning. After it promised it wouldn't, the Obama administration has repeatedly intervened to overturn decisions made by FDA scientists. The FDA is reportedly disillusioned.

    I'd be the last person to praise Obama, but many of the decisions look like sensible policy, overturning 'scientific' overreach. Nutritional information on movie popcorn? Banning pharmacist-prepared progesterone at the cost of a 100 fold price increase?

  11. .

    Nutritional information on movie popcorn?

    The next reg would have required glow in the dark lettering so you could read it in the theater.

    This may seem silly, but it is the completely normal outcome when an agency gets too big. There is a bureaucratic imperative to generate new stuff to justify the budget.