It's time to stop playing politics with science and realise its limitations.
Stop playing politics with science and realise its limitations
The Texas governor Rick Perry said during his failed bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination that global warming was “a scientific theory that hasn’t been proven”. On the other side of the environmental debate, Mark Parnell, an Australian Green leader said this month there were enough question marks over fracking “that we should have a moratorium until the science is in”.
These statements betray either deep ignorance about how science works and how policy is made, or a cynical willingness to use the language of science to justify ideological positions.
The idea seems to be that science is some kind of infallible oracle, to whom we appeal for answers on difficult decisions. But like the original Greek oracle of Delphi, science’s replies are ambiguous, and raise further questions.
Our scientific knowledge is continuously evolving. Theories – by definition – are never “proved”. We hold to theories that have made good predictions in the past.
But received wisdom in a particular field can be overturned by a new paradigm.
The idea that we should not act until we have scientific certainty is nonsensical. On this basis, since we still don’t really understand the nature of gravity, it would be prudent to stop flying in planes and launching satellites until “the science is in”.
Even in the best-studied subject, there are always anomalies. The complexity of a phenomenon such as climate change means that no single scientist has an overview of the whole topic.
Highlighting scientific uncertainty is often just playing politics. Environmentalists who call for prohibitions on shale gas exploration, offshore oil drilling and nuclear power, know that once imposed, these bans are almost impossible to reverse. But they are wielding a dangerous weapon – as climate change deniers use the same tactics, picking on uncertainties on clouds, cosmic rays, medieval European temperatures, to block cuts in greenhouse gases.
Even if we had perfect understanding of the physical science, the social sciences will always remain inexact. In Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation sci-fi novels, attempts by his invented “psycho-historians” to predict the future are frequently thrown off the rails by unexpected events.
In the real world, even if we knew that climate change would cause drought in India in 2050, that would not help us much to predict the course of the Indian economy or its political system. Nor would it tell us for sure whether it would be worthwhile to spend, say, a trillion rupees now to reduce the risk of that drought.
Many claiming to use science to justify policy are mixing up questions of fact, which science can shed light on, with “normative” questions which are about our values and morality.
Economics may tell us with reasonable confidence that imposing a tax on carbon today would reduce carbon dioxide emissions and hence future climate change. But it would cost us today – should our descendants, who will probably be richer and more technologically advanced, bear that burden instead? And how do we value the natural world, or cultural heritage, or community cohesion?
Policies are not devised and implemented by an apolitical philosopher-king. Politicians and civil servants can be principled and public-spirited – but more often, they are self-interested, fallible human beings like the rest of us.
What’s the solution? Good advice from scientists is vital to running modern societies, but it is not a substitute for open debate and a sound political process. Attempts to cherry-pick scientific findings to support favoured courses of action should make us suspicious.
Instead of condemning those who reverse policy positions in response to new evidence, we should praise them for intellectual honesty. And we all need to understand the limits of what science can, and cannot, tell us.
Robin Mills is the head of consulting at Manaar Energy, and the author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis and Capturing Carbon