ClimateGate and the Cost of Blurring Science and Politics

Daniel Sarewitz and Samuel Thernstrom, of Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes and the American Enterprise Institute respectively, co-authored an op-ed in today’s Los Angeles Times on how the debate over leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, and climate change more broadly, is colored by the mistaken idea that science can resolve contentious policy questions that implicate fundamental values.  As the note, “If ‘pure’ science dictates our actions, then there is no need to acknowledge the role that political interests and social values play in deciding how society should address climate change.”  It also leads to excessively politicized conflict over scientific findings and prevents honest debate over the underlying policy questions.

problems such as climate change are much more scientifically complex than determining the charge on an electron or even the structure of DNA. The research deals not with building blocks of nature but with dynamic systems that are inherently uncertain, unpredictable and complex. Such science is often not subject to replicable experiments or verification; rather, knowledge and insight emerge from the weight of theory, data and evidence, usually freighted with considerable uncertainty, disagreement and internal contradiction.

Thus, we write neither to attack nor to defend the East Anglia scientists, but to make clear that the ideal of pure science as a source of truth that can cut through politics is false. The authority of pure science is a two-edged sword, and it cuts deeply in both directions in the climate debate: For those who favor action, the myth of scientific purity confers unique legitimacy upon the evidence they bring to political debates. And for those who oppose action, the myth provides a powerful foundation for counterattack whenever deviations from the unattainable ideal come to light. . . .

The real scandal illustrated by the e-mails is not that scientists tried to undermine peer review, fudge and conceal data, and torpedo competitors, but that scientists and advocates on both sides of the climate debate continue to claim political authority derived from a false ideal of pure science. This charade is a disservice to both science and democracy. To science, because the reality cannot live up to the myth; to democracy, because the difficult political choices created by the genuine but also uncertain threat of climate change are concealed by the scientific debate.