02 April 2012

Who has Authority in Political Debates Involving Science?

In political debates that involve considerations of science, it is tempting to characterize scientists who demand particular types of action simply as political partisans. But when scientists make demands of the political process there is often more going on than just an effort to achieve political gain for one's preferred policies. 

At the De Gemeynt blog Jan Paul van Soest explains some of the complexities in the context of the recent Plant Under Pressure conference in London which concluded with a modest "State of the Planet Declaration" (here in PDF):
The body of knowledge in Earth System Sciences in the broadest sense, is impressive. Yet, most scientists at Planet under Pressure feel their knowledge is hardly translated into actions. Below the surface, frustrations can easily be sensed. Frustration may provoke scientists to even stronger formulate their messages, and choose words that fit better in the realm of societal and political discussions than in the scientific domain: ‘We must’, ‘we should’, ‘an imperative to act’, ‘we can no longer afford waiting’ and comparable phrases are frequently used to mask frustrations.

However understandable, these expressions are unlikely to be effective. The audience may think that the scientist using these terms have a political agenda. This perception undermines the scientific credibility, whether the scientist in question has a political agenda indeed or not. My take is: they don’t; most scientist don’t even really understand the nature of politics and policy-making processes. And to the extend they do, they are doing a lousy job in terms of lobbying and influencing the public and policy debate. Otherwise, more scientists would realise that overstating is not really effective in getting the message across.
If van Soest is correct that most scientists don't understand politics and policy-making processes and exhortations to action routinely backfire, then what is going on when scientists are making demands of the political system?

The answer is that for many scientists active in political exhortation the key issue is not "policy" in the sense of "what we should do" but rather "authority" as in "who should determine political outcomes." The appeal to the political authority of science is a common one -- Nico Stehr and Hans von Storch wrote about it in Der Spiegel several years ago (and a translation appeared here, see also Brian Wynne here):
Leading climate scientists insist that humanity is at a crossroads. A continuation of present economic and political trends leads to disaster if not collapse. To create a globally sustainable way of life, we immediately need in the words of German climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a "great transformation." What exactly is meant by the statement is vague. Part, if not the heart of this great transformation is in the eyes of some climate scientists as well as other scientists part of the great debate about climate change a new political regime and forms of governance: "We need an authoritarian form of government in order to implement the scientific consensus on greenhouse gas emissions" according to the Australian scholars David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith their book The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy. The well-known climate researcher James Hansen adds resignedly and frustrated as well as vaguely, "the democratic process does not work". In The Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock emphasizes that we need to abandon democracy in order to meet the challenges of climate change head on. We are in a state of war. In order to pull the world out of its state of lethargy, the equivalent of a global warming "nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat" speech is urgently needed.
Last week in an interview Michael Mann, the Penn State professor of "hockey stick" fame, criticized the Obama Administration on climate cahnge not for the substance of its policies, but rather, for its failure to justify its policies in terms of science. Mann explained:
In Obama’s second State of the Union address, he actually seemed to concede the scientific evidence as a weakness. He argued that we need to pursue a more enlightened energy strategy in spite of the doubts about the science of climate change. … We’ve actually made negative progress from where we were 10 years earlier, when Clinton gave his final State of the Union address. We've gone from the science being the primary reason to move forward to the argument that we should move forward in spite of supposed weaknesses in the science of climate change. So we've retreated to a position of weakness on this issue . . .
From Mann's perspective, the substance of the policies of the Obama Administration are apparently secondary to who is held up as the authority in justifying those actions. What matters is thus political authority rather than policy effectiveness.

The dynamics discussed here are of course not limited to environmental issues. Understanding the current tenor of scientists in politics requires understanding that ongoing debates about science and policy making involve considerations of power politics as much as policy preferences. Of course, scientists who seek such authority are perfect allies to campaigners who seek to exploit the authority of science for their own political gain.

Back at the De Gemeynt blog van Soest offers some useful advice in the form of an alternative perspective on the role of science in decision making, one which is consistent with the discussion found in The Honest Broker:
[C]ommunicating science in terms of imperatives actually undermines the politicians’ sense of responsibility. Although some politicians may be risk averse, the key role of politicians is to choose, not to blindly follow someone else’s view. Who would need politicians if science would automatically lead to policies? It doesn’t. Therefore, imperatives can easily be laid aside, and are likely ineffective. They disempower politicians, instead of adressing them in their key role and responsibility: chosing and negotiating options.
There were some good examples of presenting the science in a more open way, in terms of a variety of options and their consequences, and including the scientific uncertainties. A subsession on fisheries and oceanic ecosystem governance demonstrated that: a science-based mapping of goals, options, timing and uncertainties made clear what the actual choices are, and helps making progress in decision-making, even in a situation where governance is still ruled by the 1609 pamphlet Mare Liberum (The Free Sea) by the Dutch philosopher and jurist Hugo Grotius.

The best and most effective ways of communicating science therefore seem to be those that separate knowledge from decision, that provide policy-makers with options instead of imperatives, and with ‘what if’ instead of ‘will happen inevitably’.
Discussing how the scientific community might relate to policymakers is as important (perhaps more so in highly politicized contexts) as discussing what policy makers "should" be doing in response to various policy issues. Those seeking greater political authority for science may actually be contributing to a loss of trust in institutions of science among parts of society. If science is to well serve democratic governance, then the scientific community needs to move beyond exhortation.