An interesting piece in the Guardian by Jack Stilgoe marred by the use of the phrase “climate change denier”. Why do otherwise clearly intelligent people make fools of themselves like this? Perhaps as well as “a new humility on the part of science in the face of public attitudes”, a “a new humility on the part of the media in the face of public attitudes” wouldn’t go amiss either.
Science and politics need counselling, not a separation
Jack Stilgoe : 21-12-2012
A piece by Brian Cox and Robin Ince in the New Statesman has excited that corner of the Twittersphere concerned with things scientific. Their argument is that, because science has been twisted and undermined by politicians, there needs to be clearer separation between scientific truths and political values.
I think it’s worth spending some time thinking about what’s going on here. As corroborative evidence, I’d also like to submit Royal Society presidentPaul Nurse’s recent anniversary address (pdf).
I welcome the recent involvement of Cox and Ince in a debate that has long been dominated by scientific grandees. They and Nurse are thoughtful people interested in the relationship between science and society, and they work hard to improve it.
Those of us who teach and write about science policy, the philosophy of science and the history of science can join a clichéd academic chorus of “it’s more complicated than that”. The historians can remind Nurse that scientists are not as sceptical of their own ideas as he would like us to believe. The philosophers can tell Cox and Ince that there is no single “scientific method”. The sociologists can point out that Nature (oddly capitalised, as @green_gambit pointed out) does not speak for itself. And the policy wonks can wryly observe that advocates of “evidence-based policy” seem to forget their mantra when it comes to science policy.
Such rejoinders are healthy and important, but they miss a bigger point. Cox, Ince and Nurse are fighting for the status of science. They are standing up for science in the face of an imagined enemy. My problem with their rhetoric is that it is bad politics. They are picking the wrong fight and giving the wrong impression about science. Their aim is to boost the credibility of science, but the effect is the opposite.
All three call for a separation between science and politics. Cox and Ince want “a place where science stops and politics begins”. Nurse wants to “keep science as far as is possible from political, ideological and religious influence”. But their own rhetorical tangles demonstrate just how hard this is.
Cox and Ince are right to say, “The loud criticism of climate science is motivated in the main not by technical objections, but by the difficult political choices with which it confronts us.” But they are wrong to equate the rantings of climate change deniers as “an attack on the scientific method”. To say such things only confirms the deniers’ suspicions that science is trying to close off its discussions. Science is strong enough to withstand and benefit from scepticism, even if that scepticism is more disorganised than scientists would like.
Climate science cannot be separated from climate politics, and this is a good thing. Nurse laments that scientists are “only human”. This is a good thing too. Many climate scientists are driven by a personal desire to describe and solve a big problem, and most of them are funded because their work is seen as politically important as well as scientifically interesting.
Cox, Ince and Nurse want science to matter to politics and the public. But they are too defensive. Nobody is suggesting, as Cox and Ince fear, that we abandon science. Those who claim to fight for science, by shoring up the boundaries around science, retreat from political relevance, belittling science and damaging its public credibility.
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