Over on his blog at Foreign Policy, the always interesting and engaging political scientist Daniel Drezner raises some important questions about science and politics. Drezner looks at the interaction between populist critics of the science consensus and the guardians of that consensus — specifically at the debate between those who think that vaccinations may promote or cause autism and those (the overwhelming majority of scientists who’ve studied the issue) who think the link is totally bogus. As with the science on climate change I generally assume the main body of scientists are more reliable than their critics unless something very much out of the ordinary is going on.
Dan is surprised and disturbed that on issues like vaccination and climate change these controversies keep erupting. Not being a political scientist I’m in no position to give Dan a fully fleshed out theory, but in a seat-of-the-pants way I do have some ideas.
When science meets public policy, strange things happen and the interaction between public opinion, public policy and science turns complicated and weird. That’s true in national policy debates and it’s even more likely when different countries and cultures are involved. Regular readers of this blog will remember my comments when South Africa’s “beet lady” died last year; both Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and former South African President Thabo Mbeki had a deeply engrained lack of trust in the objectivity and reliability of western scientists and foundations. In the last decade many Muslims in northern Nigeria came to believe that the polio vaccine was spreading the AIDS virus and suppressing fertility.
When a scientific question is of no interest to the general public — are the greater and lesser spotted skinks members the same species or of two different ones, for example — then scientists are left to settle this among themselves and nobody much is going to question the results of normal scientific procedures. But when science has broader public implications — for example, that cigarettes cause cancer or that every child in the country should be vaccinated against a certain disease — then its findings are going to be scrutinized and argued over in a political context and scientists can expect to have their findings and their methods assailed by all kinds of people whose interests are affected one way or another by their results.
However absurd the skepticism in a particular case, in a general way a certain level of skepticism about the work of scientists is justified. The ‘scientific consensus’ has often been wrong in the past — and scientists are just as arrogant, dogmatic and condescending when they are wrong as when they are right. Look at the many conflicting ideas that economists have brought forward over the last two hundred years. Look at how medical ideas and treatments change over time. Look at the science of ‘eugenics’ in the light of whose findings judges once condemned people to involuntary sterilization. Look at the persisting fad for Malthusian catastrophe scenarios. Homosexuality was once scientifically defined as a form of mental illness. Trans-fats were made into margarine and promoted on scientific grounds as healthier than butter. Skepticism about self-confident scientists with reams of data and arrogant attitudes is a very sensible attitude for laypeople to take.
Scientists and intellectuals often think of confrontations between lay skepticism and scientific results as a meeting of the Flat Earth Society of idiot deniers with the brave and resourceful Christopher Columbus. That is sometimes all too true — but it isn’t always and laypeople have a right and even a duty to think these things through for themselves. Sometimes the big institutions and the big money scientists just get things wrong — and sometimes we need the little kid in the crowd to pipe up and say that the emperor isn’t wearing anything at all. The ‘army of Davids‘ can sometimes see things the big boys have missed.
Moreover, once a controversy leaves the realm of pure science and moves into the realms of policy and politics, scientists aren’t — and can’t be — in charge anymore. If the lesser spotted skink turns out to be an endangered species rather than a rare subspecies, whether it should be protected or not is a political question not a scientific one. Scientists don’t get to write the Endangered Species Act all by themselves; other interest groups (real estate developers, for example) also get a bite at the apple. If cigarettes cause cancer, whether to discourage smoking, ban it altogether or otherwise regulate it is a political decision not a scientific one. Once the controversy crosses this line, scientists turn from experts and authority figures into ordinary citizens and it is their voting strength and their ability to persuade non-scientists about the merits of their views and priorities, rather than the number and quality of their peer reviewed publications, that determines their weight in the political process.
The biggest case of scientists losing control of the policy process happened when Albert Einstein told Franklin Roosevelt about the possibility of building an atom bomb. Einstein gave the president a piece of scientific data; what was done about that information was entirely up to the political and military authorities. Moreover, as the strategic importance of nuclear physics came clear, much of its work came under government control, with intrusive new procedures like security clearances interfering with the free flow of scientific information. Science had become so important to the national interest (and so expensive to carry on) that scientists lost control of the scientific process.
The science of climate change is, after nuclear physics, maybe the most politically explosive science around. The implications are staggering — potentially, dealing with this information could require the effective global regulation of virtually every form of economic and recreational activity we know. If climate scientists are even half right, they are going to have to get used to intrusive and unrelenting public scrutiny. Their work will be second-guessed and disputed; their financial interests examined with a fine-toothed comb. Hostile critics will go through their emails; every jot and tittle they publish will be closely examined by lynx-eyed skeptics. The debates over the policy implications of global warming will be waged mendaciously, tendentiously and unscrupulously — just like the debates over issues ranging from abortion to stem cell research to animal rights.
This isn’t because people are stupid and irrational (although, let’s admit it: all of us are stupid and irrational some of the time, and some people seem to behave this way most of the time). Climate science is controversial because the work that the climate scientists do has such enormous implications for so many people and interests.
The findings of climate science will (and should) be held to a much higher standard of accuracy and certainty than normal scientific studies. Scientists can be wrong about the lesser spotted skink for twenty years and then change their minds; no harm, no foul except maybe to the skinks. But if the implications of the work of climate scientists lead to serious proposals for the entire world to make dramatic shifts in its basic patterns of energy usage, it would be utterly naive and idiotic for scientists to expect that there wouldn’t be lots of people second guessing their work and checking over it in the hope of discovering mistakes.
An article by Fred Pearce in The Guardian newspaper does a good job, I think, at examining some of the hassles and problems that climate scientists face — and they will only get worse. Pearce describes the attempts by scientists at the East Anglia Climate Research Unit and elsewhere to avoid the intrusive and expensive process of handing over mountains of data to critics who they correctly believed to be hostile. It’s a pretty fair minded piece; Pearce acknowledges the difficulties the scientists faced without losing his grip on the core facts of the case. I sympathize with the scientists faced with these time consuming and intrusive requests, and think maybe the British government needs to provide more clerical support to its universities if it is going to keep such far reaching freedom of information requirements. Still, climate scientists are working with the political equivalent of radium, not modeling clay and if you can’t stand the heat — you shouldn’t be in the kitchen.
There are similarities between the battle over climate science and the smaller scale but intense and emotional battles over issues like vaccination and autism. But the climate science problem is much harder to manage. 190 plus nations, each with different interests and different political structures, are not going to reach an agreement on fundamental changes in industrial and energy policy without some pretty intense reviews of the underlying data. Virtually any skeptic with even the shadow of a plausible case is going to get a hearing before this is done. And as part of the process of building a deep and strong enough global consensus to go forward, those discussions are going to be held more than once, in more than one country. The polio vaccine is almost sixty years old, and people still aren’t sure they accept it in northern Nigeria. And given many of the countries involved are democracies and that in quite a few of them many voters can’t read or write and have had no scientific education whatever, this process seems unlikely to go at the speed many would like. It’s highly unlikely that public opinion will be quickly swayed by experts people have never heard of invoking methodologies and protocols whose histories and rationales they don’t understand. But those voters know very well what the price of fuel and cooking oil is, and they won’t support politicians who make these prices go up. They will also be quick to believe that the ‘experts’ promoting these policies are sinister elitists or otherwise pawns of shady global forces. Already we hear that the Indian government is setting up its own environmental assessment agency to reduce its dependence on the IPCC. When the Indian institute disagrees with the IPCC, whose word will carry greater weight in Indian politics?
It’s deeply naive to think changes as sweeping and even wrenching as the climate science community wants to see can happen without a long and complex political process in many different countries. And to the extent that the world is becoming more democratic, and people virtually everywhere on earth are insisting on making up their own minds rather than deferring to the views of experts and elites, this will only get acute as time goes by. And since we live in a time in which more and more scientific questions have political consequences, we can expect more of these pitched battles between those seeking to make large policy changes on the basis of scientific findings and those opposed to those changes for various reasons who seek to undermine or rebut the scientific arguments behind the policy proposals. And it will be political facts on the ground rather than purely scientific considerations that ultimately shape policy.
Welcome to the fun house, friends. The 21st century is going to be the most dangerous and the most complicated (and the most exciting and dynamic) century in the history of the human race. The politics of science are going to get more complicated, more confusing and more contentious — even as the political impact of scientific findings looms ever larger in our lives.