I reviewed Roger A. Pielke, Jr.'s The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science and Policy in Politics in the summer issue of The New Atlantis. The review is now available on-line here. Pielke makes many interesting points in the course of his discussion of science politicization (and policy scientization), and the threat posed to science by "stealth issue advocacy." At one point, he makes an interesting comparison between the politicization of science in environmental policy with the politicization of intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
Pielke draws a provocative and somewhat persuasive parallel between the reliance upon the precautionary principle in environmental policy and the doctrine of preemption in foreign policy, as advocated by the Bush administration with regard to Iraq. In each case, uncertainty itself is not a reason for inaction. To the contrary, uncertainty can be a reason for action—it was the possibility that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that justified preemptive action, just as it is the possibility that anthropogenic emissions might cause tremendous environmental harm that justifies precautionary climate policies. Preemption and precaution are policy responses to uncertainty, but when the potential costs of such actions are high—as with the Iraq war or global climate change policy—the argument for preemption or precaution may be difficult to make, so policymakers attempt to shift the debate to safer terrain.
Framing these policy debates as questions of science or intelligence can create incentives for the misuse of information. In the case of Iraq, "the quest for certainty required by a commitment to preemption elevated the role of politics in policy and diminished the actual role of information and intelligence," Pielke argues. "It transformed intelligence into a form of advocacy." Much the same phenomenon occurs in the debate over global warming. In each case, the expert information has been oversold and the underlying value judgments upon which the policy decisions rest are obscured. In this context, information becomes "an asset to be used to achieve victory in the debate over values, rather than a source of enlightenment."
When scientific or technical information is presented in order to advance a predetermined political agenda, it can undermine the credibility of those who provide the information, as well as those who rely upon it. The overselling of pre-war intelligence about Iraq damaged the credibility of both the Bush administration and U.S. intelligence agencies, and handicapped the administration's "subsequent ability to make similar decisions by discrediting its own intelligence agencies," Pielke observes. In much the same way, overselling scientific evidence in support of dramatic climate polices risks undermining the credibility of both the policy advocates and the science agencies, such as NASA, that produce or support the underlying research.
I should also note that Cambridge University Press is apparently offering a discount on The Honest Broker. Details here.