Climate Science is Not the Issue Here, Dude.
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.