21 July 2010

Against Scientism

Brian Wynne has a thoughtful review of Oreskes and Conway's Merchants of Doubt in this week's Nature. Wynne summarizes the core of Oreskes and Conway's argument:
Because uncertainty arises in any scientific study, powerful elites find it easy to derail policies by representing the justificatory knowledge as inadequate, even when collective scientific and related judgement supports intervention. To make science more robust against such attacks, Oreskes and Conway recommend the widespread adoption of peer-review procedures, following the model of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with the demand that the public should trust such a process to judge the proper policy significance of scientific uncertainty.
But demanding trust doesn't always work so well. Trust must be earned. Wynne explains that the larger problem -- missed by Oreskes and Conway -- lies in the notion that science should be the fulcrum on which political debates are decided:
[T]hey miss a crucial point: the ingrained assumption that scientific evidence is the only authority that can justify policy action — scientism — is what renders both policy and its supporting science vulnerable to the dogmatic amplification of doubt.

The doubters' success lies in the way that policy questions are framed, with science placed at the centre. If a policy commitment is reduced only to a question of whether the science is right or wrong, then evidence can easily be made to unravel. Paradoxically, this happens when science attains its greatest political influence, when it goes beyond supplying the facts to defining the public meaning of problems. Public-policy issues always have dimensions beyond science, and require more than technical responses. When framing debates, policy-makers should prioritize discussion of social benefits as well as science: there are many good non-scientific reasons to reduce global environmental footprints and consumption frenzy, and to pursue greater justice, for instance. If the many factors that go into a policy commitment are recognized, science does not become the sole centre of authority and the sole target for opposition.

Wynne implies that trust is built through being more openly honest:
A more enlightened institutional culture around science and policy would foster wider debate about the implications of interventions, and of burdens of proof weighed against social benefits and the costs of erroneous outcomes. This might resemble the 'extended peer review' system of philosopher-sociologists of science Jerome Ravetz and Silvio Funtowicz, in which specialists (including non-scientists) review policy-relevant scientific claims but a wider variety of stakeholders bring further knowledge to bear in interpreting them. Rather than assuming that disputes are solely scientific, opening up these decision-making processes would render their primary nature more honestly political and economic, while giving proper weight to scientific reason and evidence.
As I've often argued, the best antidote against scientism is to open up political debates, rather than try to shut them down.