On Science and Politics

No doubt you’ve been aware of the recent debate that has been raging about whether or not the scientific case for climate change has been exaggerated by various scientists, in the light of the content of a long series of emails. It’s all over the news, and so I am sure I don’t need to point to all the news stories, commentaries, and – sad to say – convenient distractions that have been constructed on the basis of them by the climate change deniers, especially those with vested interest in the status quo. (Follow the climategate tag at The Intersection for some of the links, and a sampling of the discussions, and do look at the Nature editorial for example.) This matter, and the debates it has reignited, is of course a major issue in view of the upcoming work to be done by the leaders of the world’s major economies in Copenhagen later this month.

A key point here is to realize that when science intersects with politics – especially the kind of rabid, personal, dirty politics that surrounds the climate change issue – the grey areas that are already present in honest science can get further muddied by the fact that scientists are human beings who don’t always act perfectly in all situations, and whose actions (well emails suggesting certain actions) can also be subject to question (especially when we don’t have all the facts concerning context, etc, on several of the emails which seem very ambiguous to me).

There are two things to keep in mind. The first is that there is a global community of scientists at work here, with so many different approaches, motivations, contexts, data sets, and so forth that have been brought to bear on the matter of climate science. To think that a series of emails from some small subset of them (that may or may not suggest that data have been presented unevenly, for whatever reasons) can undermine a huge body of work and conclusions from an entire worldwide scientific community is to seriously misunderstand what science is about, and how it works. jenga_gameIt is not a tall, tottering late-stage game of jenga, where there’s a danger that at any moment one of the little wooden sticks will wobble and bring the whole game crashing to the ground. Instead, it is a highly interwoven collection of findings, ideas, analysis, and conclusions that are supported by a wide variety of pieces of evidence, all arriving at the same striking picture – Our world is changing fast and our actions are highly relevant to these changes both past, present and future. Instead of a jenga construction, think more of a woven tapestry. Pulling out a few threads changes it a little bit, but it does not make the whole thing unravel and destroy the picture. Or, if you like, think of a pyramid structure, like the lovely Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán in Mexico (image borrowed from here).

pyramid_of_the_sun_mexico

There is a huge base. Pulling out one or two of the bricks at any point in the construction will not make the entire thing collapse. Again, to think science works like a jenga game is to not have understood what science is. One of the dangers of this new issue is that, as I’ve discussed here before, the general populace being subjected to this new shouting match over the emails already has a poor scientific education base (they are among the same crowd who genuinely can’t see that Intelligent Design has no place in the science classroom, for example), and so they will be easily manipulated into thinking, or offering as a defence of the status quo: Science is Suspect.

The great thing about science, and one of the things that distinguishes it from organized religion or other dogma-driven enterprises, is that it is bigger and more profound than any particular scientist. That science is not a late-stage jenga game, driven by personality and hence endangered by the personal flaws of a few scientists, is why it is a wonderful and powerful thing that will outlast any particular individual. It is a way of navigating the world using reason, and managing the inevitable uncertainty that lives in the world, and that will always afflict human beings, since we are not Gods and cannot know all the data with absolutely certainty.

The problem is that many people want certainty. They are uncomfortable without it. They are often the same sort of people who join organizations that have a reassuring father figure dressed in some sort of costume who tells them what to do. When science intersects with politics (and religion, etc), as it must from time to time, the tension between its inherent need to accept and manage uncertainty versus the desire for clear absolute statements becomes acute. Things get worse when people take up positions, have axes to grind, reputations to protect, and so forth – things that afflict scientists and non-scientists alike, since they are human.

It seems to me that the writers of the emails under discussion may have fallen prey to some of this tension, and may have crossed the line somewhat in terms of remaining transparent in their deliberations. This is not good, and we should learn to what extent this happened, and what the context is for some of the emails. (See the Nature editorial I pointed to for discussion of this. Some of the expressed desires to leave out certain papers from discussion did not come to fruition… as a result of there being a strong scientific community at work, those papers appeared in the key IPCC reports anyway…) But the key point is that it does not matter nearly as much as the politically-motivated would like you to think it does. Remember that.

Have a listen to an excellent discussion on this matter that took place this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. It is an excellent 10 minute segment (they read out some of the emails and discuss their possible meaning) that is at the 08:33 timepoint (scroll down this page and then click to listen). Synopsis:

How do you balance scientific facts with public policy? Scientists are faced with pressure to present evidence on issues of public policy, and to lobby for a particular outcome. Leaked emails from the University of East Anglia which imply that climate change data was manipulated have demonstrated the clash between politics and science. Correspondent Tom Feilden reports on the latest ‘emailgate’ developments, and Professor Malcolm Grant, President and Provost of UCL, discusses how far politics should rely on science.

Enjoy!

-cvj

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