13 September 2012

The Power of Scientific Knowledge: A Guest Post

NOTE: This is a guest post by Reiner Grundmann and Nico Stehr on their new book, The Power of Scientific Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

In this book we examine the relation between knowledge and decision making, more precisely, the practical effectiveness of scientific knowledge in political contexts. We do this through the study of three cases, Keynesian economics, race science, and climate science. In all cases there it is policy relevant knowledge which has been taken up by policy makers to greater or lesser degrees.

We use the conceptual distinction between knowledge for practice (politically relevant knowledge) and practical knowledge (knowledge which can make a difference in practice). This simple difference allows us to emphasize several points which all too often get neglected in studies of a similar kind. First, some knowledge (perhaps much knowledge) does not intend to be practical, or does not lend itself to practical applications. Second, knowledge that has practical implications is not always practical, because it does not recognize, let alone specify the levers for action. Practical knowledge is knowledge that contains realistic assumptions about its own implementation within specific socio-political contexts. And third, whenever knowledge is produced which has practical implications the knowledge producers are drawn into the policy making process. If they fail to specify the tools for implementation their knowledge will be ineffective.

These are necessary, not sufficient conditions for knowledge to become practical. Policy proposals that are based on such knowledge still need to find support by political coalitions, stakeholders or social movements. We show in the book that the cultural and political resonance of knowledge claims and ideas matters very much.
Our findings in the book may surprise. Keynes, who developed his theory while advising the British government, made several practical policy suggestions but did not prevail at the time. His policy was taken up later in different countries (arguably through processes of diffusion and changing perceptions). He famously stated that what matters for practical knowledge is not a theory which mimics complex reality but a theory which contains those elements which can be manipulated by decision makers.

Race science developed tools for the classification of races and individuals who were then identified for specific "treatment." This knowledge was keenly taken up by several governments. In Germany these policies were taken to the extreme with the extermination policies in the Holocaust. In this sense race science was extremely powerful in practice. Due to this history, it is quite common for commentators to deny the contemporary scientific status that was held by eugenics and race science. In our view this is little more than wishful thinking.

Climate science has made the case for anthropogenic global warming and spent much energy on providing proof in this respect. The debate has been immensely politicized but with little practical effect. GHG emissions are not falling in line with the scientific recommendations. In this sense, climate science has proven ineffective for policy making. It failed to identify the levers for action which could make a difference in practice.

There is an eerie similarity between race science and climate science in that both see their services as essential for solving pressing social problems.

The use of science by the Nazi regime has been described as follows:
‘The Nazis took major problems of the day—problems of race, gender, crime, and poverty—and transformed them into medical or biological problems. Nazi philosophers argued that Germany was teetering on the brink of racial collapse, and that racial hygiene was needed to save Germany from ‘racial suicide.’ Racial hygiene thus combined a philosophy of biological determinism with a belief that science might provide a technical fix for social problems. Harnessed to a political party mandated to root out all forms of racial, social, or spiritual ‘disease,’ the ideology of biological determinism helped drive the kinds of programs for which the Nazis have become infamous.’ (Robert Proctor, Racial Hygiene).
This could serve as a cautionary tale when considering other, more benign cases of public policy, such as climate change. Here, too, some climate scientists and their supporters have defended specific courses of action with reference to scientific truth, disregarding the fact that it is largely a public choice to identify and implement sound and just policies.

Let us quote from our book here:
What follows for climate policy? Let us tackle this question indirectly, starting with the conclusion just reached, and asking: Can policy-makers appeal to a body of scientific knowledge and authority? And what non-scientific principles could be used to reach sensible policies? While there is a robust consensus among scientific authorities regarding detection (and perhaps also attribution) of anthropogenic global warming, this does not tell us what to do. To be sure, some scientific authorities demand cutting CO2 emissions radically within the next decades. But this may be an ‘impractical’ strategy, so to speak. In the short term, levers for action in this regard have to be seen with pessimism, as argued above. What is more, if society were prepared to take preventative and/or adaptive measures with regard to climate change, it would not need to wait for scientific studies to deliver the foundations for this belief. And if climate change were seen as a risk we want to avoid, we should try to reduce our vulnerability and take adaptive measures (coastline protection, increasing agricultural and infrastructure resilience). As in other policy fields, we face the prospect of acting on the basis of limited information, where Lindblom’s principle of incrementalism should be followed. Social and economic policies are prime examples of areas where we do this all the time, mostly without waiting for yet another improved report on the state of knowledge (bearing in mind that such reports, if available, will in all likelihood be used as ‘trump cards’ if they fit the proposed policy option—otherwise they will be ignored).

About 100 years ago, the great Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath expressed the hope to unite society through science, to solve political conflicts through rational scientific argumentation. He said: ‘Metaphysical terms divide; scientific terms unite.’ If we interpret the ‘metaphysical’ to comprise ideological and political aspects, we arrive at a truly astonishing conclusion. In the example of Keynes, the practical policies and agreements that were implemented were first and foremost based on politics. Keynes himself may have subscribed to a technocratic (and elitist) world view, but he practiced differently. His economic policy proposals were based on the recognition of the ‘stickiness of wages’ and a respect of trade union power. He developed his policy in opposition to neoclassical market equilibrium models. With regard to racism, we realize that the Nazis used an ideology to unite a majority of the German people and enrolled race science to bolster additional support for the extermination programs. So what happens in the climate discourse? Again, we see a widespread political agreement about the serious implications of climate change. But when it comes to action, ironically, science has been used to divide, not to unite. Because of a misunderstanding of the relation between authoritative knowledge and political power, a battle has been waged for the ‘correct’ understanding of the climate system as a precondition for action. This has alienated many citizens who would be prepared to discuss preventative policies (as expressed in opinion polls). Many perceive that they are expected to subscribe to a platform that is either beyond their grasp or suspicious. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that the science war about climate change has all the overtones of a religious war.

We do not claim to provide a general theory of how knowledge becomes practical and effective in policy making. Even if knowledge has the hallmarks of being practical, this does not mean that it will be implemented and thus automatically become effective in practice. Too many factors influence policy making and the unpredictable nature of historical processes inevitably thwarts any kind of determinism. The many different possible combinations of policy streams, windows of opportunity and active policy entrepreneurs lead to different policy outcomes, over time and in different jurisdictions.

But even where practical knowledge is developed, this does not create the conditions for its own practical success. Political and cultural forces are usually far more important for decision making. So does our study on the Power of Scientific Knowledge end with the conclusion that it does not yield any? It certainly does not in the literal sense of the term. However, scientists can act as agenda setters, influencing the belief systems of decision makers and provide legitimation for decisions taken. A science push model is highly improbable. As the cases of Eugenics and Keynesianism show, even the most practical knowledge does not create the conditions for its own implementation. And the case of climate change provides another lesson, the futility of trying to influence policy making without practical knowledge.