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Climate Science is Not the Issue Here, Dude.

March 5, 2010

In his Nature column this month (PDF here), Dan Sarewitz adds some valuable insight into controversies over climate science.

The problem? Science has been called on to do something beyond its purview: not just improve people’s understanding of the world, but compel people to act in a particular way.

Dan does not believe that IPCC errors detract much from the overwhelming evidence for global warming. Skeptics are naive to think that the whole foundation is crumbling. However,

supporters of the climate policy regime have long advanced an equally naive and idealized version of how the vaunted scientific consensus on anthropogenic warming demanded action consistent with their ideological preferences.

This is the central problem: the idea that science can resolve political conflict; that it can tell you what to do. Climate activists equate scientific information with their own desired policy action. If current science is not convincing enough, then we need better, more certain science. But as Dan writes, this idea “is not just false, but backwards”:

Science is much more pliable and permissive than deeply held beliefs about how the world should work. Scientific understanding of [complex systems] is always incomplete, and gives the competing sides plenty of support for their pre-existing political preferences — as well as plenty to hide behind in claiming that those preferences are supported by science. Science can decisively support policy only after fundamental political differences have been resolved.

There are some parallels here with the creationist movement, its rejection of evolution, and policy battles over the teaching of evolution in schools. For many people evolution is a threat to certain core values. Despite overwhelming evidence for the theory, it is still just a scientific theory with various gaps and uncertainties. If the science education debate continues to focus on whether or not evolution is absolutely true, it will never end.

In both cases–climate and evolution–the science is good enough to inform policy once there is some kind of agreement on values. But that will require us to stop debating the science and start talking about what kind of a society we want to live in. As Jeffrey Lebowski would say, climate science is not the issue here, dude.

Update: Coincidentally, today the New York Times is covering the issue of teaching climate change, and parallels with evolution. Check out the article here, and discussion at Andy Revkin’s blog here. Revkin quotes some very interesting survey research on attitudes toward evolution, climate change, and science itself.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Thad permalink
    March 5, 2010 10:45 am

    Honestly, the content doesn’t matter. You deserve a webby for using the Dude to set climate science straight.

    • March 5, 2010 10:49 am

      Never underestimate the wisdom of the Dude!

  2. Casey permalink
    March 5, 2010 8:33 pm

    Okay, I’m a little emotional at this point, and not a scientist, just a groupie, so you can take what I say for what it’s worth.

    At least you didn’t call anybody a “denier”, but there is still entirely too much name calling and categorizing going on around here. Apparently the “warmists” have settled on “skeptics” as a reasonably respectful apellation for their sworn enemies, when, in fact, “skeptics” can’t begin to cover the array of personalities and convictions among the people who are not “warmists”, who, amusingly, are just as various and complicated.

    Everyone is being a little naive if they believe one can reasonably compare the climate change controversies and creationism vs evolution since we are talking apples and appaloosas. I think “warmists” (for the sake of brevity, please), or some of them anyway, must take delight in this attempt to draw a plausible connection between these two conceptual arrays – for lack of a better term, given that it packages up both ideas in a little bum bag on a stick for Mr. Stupid. Any thinking person knows that the problems in climate science are serious or we wouldn’t be having this conversation along with every other environmental blog in the world, would we? (Well, accept for climateprogress where Joe Romm deletes any skeptical input.)

    Today I hold with Roger Pielke Jr. who is dealing with approximately the same material as you are, Ryan, and as Revkin is doing at the Times, who asks this: “are we introducing a sort of willful intellectual poverty into the debate over climate change by the practice of collapsing everything into two sides?” It is not between the stupid and smart, the left and the right, the god-fearing and the godless, but AMONG all of them, swimming about in a pot of 256 shades of gray, and all with the fire in their bellies. The species has to work this one out. Darwin’s dead. We’re on our own.

    Thanks for paying attention.

    • March 5, 2010 9:04 pm

      Thanks for contributing those comments Casey.
      My purpose in this post was to draw out two examples of a typical problem: disputes over science take the place of much needed debate over values. Another example can be found in abortion politics, when people get into hysterical arguments over the “science” of when life begins. This obscures a more important element of the debate related to deeply held beliefs about the value of life itself.

      So for the purposes of this comparison it doesn’t matter if the science in each example is equally well established; it’s more about how the science functions amidst a political debate.

      That aside, I fully agree with you that there are people questioning climate science in legitimate ways for reasons that have little to do with the values Sarewitz describes. I think these good-faith skeptical participants are exactly the ones Judith Curry is talking about (see

      All three of these examples occur in a much broader spectrum of debate and debate participants.

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