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Mission Impossible: Separating Science & Politics

By Keith Kloor
Nov 3, 2010 10:55 PMNov 19, 2019 11:45 PM


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David Roberts must not have received the memo that he was supposed to ignore Judith Curry. Seriously, Roberts has made a forceful argument in response to a recent Curry post, in which she wrote:

Climate scientists have no particular expertise on politics, economics or social ethics. A scientist's personal sense of values and morality has no more legitimacy in this debate than any other individual's personal sense. There's an additional reason for climate scientists to stay out of the public debate on this topic: they are biased because of their personal research interests and results, with professional egos and other factors likely weighing into their policy preferences.

That is the thrust of Curry's case for climate science remaining separate from politics, of which Roberts counters:

First, as a general matter, I agree with Curry's sentiment. There's no reason to think a physical scientist's moral, ethical, or economic opinions should carry particular weight in policy deliberations. On those matters, they are but citizens among other citizens. Curry's blunt candor on the matter is refreshing, an improvement on James Hansen telling us that science dictates one carbon-pricing policy over another. However, I don't think scientists can be "removed from the political debate" that easily, certainly not by any decree of mine! It's very difficult in practice to separate out Things Scientists Do ("future scenarios, characterizing uncertainties, and analyzing policy options") from Things Scientists Don't Do ("politics, economics or social ethics"), even in the best of circumstances. However, even if scientists entirely confine their involvement to dispassionate, unbiased fact and analysis, climate science will still be politicized. To understand why requires a clear view of the current political dynamic in the U.S., which is what's often lacking in pieces like Curry's.

Roberts goes on to discuss why Curry (and others, such as Roger Pielke Jr.) seem averse to mixing politics and science--he chalks it up to a "characterological centrist" (CE) temperament. But that temperament, he argues, is at odds with the current hyperpartisan political landscape, which of course frames the public debate on climate change. Here's how Roberts sees the big picture:

I'm not talking about climate sensitivities or hurricane frequency or sea-level projections or other areas of active scientific disputation. I'm talking about whether human beings are driving changes in the climate. That question is simply not in serious dispute in the relevant scientific disciplines. It has been confirmed by multiple lines of evidence, empirical and model-based, over many years. Curry and virtually every other credible climate scientist would no doubt agree. Yet Republicans have now made rejection of that root scientific consensus a litmus test, in keeping with their decades-long assault on America's institutions. Virtually every Republican candidate for Congress has denied the most rudimentary facts about climate change. Yes, Democrats mangle climate science sometimes too. Activists can exaggerate the degree of certainty behind model projections. Scientists can be unduly dismissive of critics. Nobody is blameless. But there is simply nothing on the left (or in the center, or in professional science) remotely equivalent to the anti-intellectualism that reaches to the very top of the Republican Party. Conservatives are politicizing climate science. Curry is uncomfortable saying that; it sounds like "getting involved in politics." Most CCs [characterological centrists] are averse to saying it for fear of appearing partisan (rather than, uh, "post-partisan"). But the fact remains: Even if climate scientists confine their comments purely to what's known with a high degree of probability, with all the uncertainties baked right in, staying scrupulously clear of policy or ethical judgments, they will still find themselves aligned against the conservative movement and they will be attacked. Republicans slander peer review, science funding, scientific institutions, and scientists themselves. "Both sides" don't do that. Just the right side. (Of course I'm aware that there are conservatives and even some climate scientists with good-faith doubts about certain aspects of the science. But we're talking about politics -- not conservative intellectuals, the conservative movement.)

This echoes, in part, a criticism of Curry that was made often when I was doing my Q & A's with her last year: that she's not acknowledging, much less calling out, the outright dishonesty of the propagandist arm of the organized climate skeptic movement, which many climate advocates, like Roberts, contend is the predominant force in the climate debate. And, as Roberts reminds us, the climate change is bogus meme became an article of faith for many Republican candidates this year. Taken together, all this makes it hard to avoid at least addressing the politicization of climate science, which is what I think is the point of Roberts' post. (The subhead is "It takes two to depoliticize.") As to why Curry might want to avoid this messiness, Roberts seems willing to give her the benefit of doubt, but her participation in the debate automatically gets politicized, with or without her consent:

Curry may be able to remain scrupulously apolitical, if that's her inclination. But climate science in general cannot escape politics. Not because scientists -- or the advocates and politicians who take it seriously -- did anything to bring it on themselves. It's just that an alliance of energy incumbents and far-right ideologues has chosen to lie relentlessly about it. In the milieu of current climate and energy politics, speaking the truth is a political act. The only way to escape politics is to lapse into silence.

In her post, Curry argues otherwise:

Taking the politics out of the science would help clarify both the scientific disagreements and the political disagreements. Neither the scientific or political disagreements are going to go away. But by separating them we stand to make much more progress on each. Am I being naive and optimistic about how this might work?

Roberts, in his rebuttal, makes a strong case that she is definitely being naive. The larger, related issue he seems less inclined to consider is whether climate science should remain the focal point for political action on climate change.

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