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Politics drive political decisions

November 30, 2011 Leave a comment

“It is absolutely essential that the negotiators get a continuous and repeated exposure to the science of climate change,” Pachauri told Reuters in an interview late on Tuesday…Pachauri heads the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which issued a report for policymakers on Friday saying an increase in heat waves is almost certain, while heavier rain, more floods, stronger cyclones, landslides and more intense droughts are likely across the globe this century. “I am afraid the way the whole thing is structured loses sight of these realities,” Pachauri said of the talks”–Reuters[Emphasis added-PK]

Pachauri should not lose sight of the reality that politics drive political decisions. Nation-states pursue their short term interests. We can throw hysterical temper tantrums all we want, but any treaty that ignores this reality will continue to fail. It’s a perpetual fantasy of academic scientists everywhere that the laws of nature are somehow more powerful and important than the laws of politics. We won’t make more progress until we acknowledge that reality.

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Accepting climate science vs. climate policy

October 13, 2011 5 comments

To continue musing why some people don’t’ accept climate science, I wonder if part of the blame lies with those of us who want legislative action. We’ve convinced ourselves that climate science definitively, inexorably, and without any doubt leads to climate policy. I get the logic, and have a fair deal of sympathy for it. But since our argument often takes the form: science says x, thus implement cap-and-trade, it’s not too surprising when the science is attacked. Can we really expect otherwise? There are people out there who oppose regulation, taxation and environmental stewardship. Given the way the debate plays out, asking everyone to agree with the science is just a sneaky  way of asking those people to agree with regulation, taxation, and environmental stewardship in the first place.

As I speculated ages ago, it’s possible climate science denial has increased precisely because wait-and-see isn’t viewed as a legitimate response. Perhaps more people would accept climate science if it were decoupled from climate policy, and if our argument instead took the form: the science says x, which means very little for anything else. It’s possible that maintaining the purity of the science means compromising our core argument. (If it’s any consolation, at least one climate policy expert believes wait-and-see can be a reasonable stance.)

Now I’m not arguing (as Roger and Breakthrough do) that we should decouple the science and policy because it will advance the policy. I have no clue what will move climate policy, and I actually agree with David Roberts’ critiques of the Breakthrough approach. But for people like me who aren’t that emotionally invested in the issue, separating the science from policy can bring its own rewards. Despite some of my caveats, I really do want better public science literacy. If muting the link between science and action also mutes some of the intrinsic opposition to climate science, that’s a win in my book.

Categories: Climate Change, Policy

Anti-science vs. epistemic closure in climate science denial

October 12, 2011 4 comments

I’ve finally decided I can’t claim to write about science and politics without actually writing about science and politics. People want to make generalizations about Democrats and Republicans. Since some of those generalizations involve science, it’s incumbent upon me to say something. I’ve shied away from this sort of analysis because, despite occasional excursions, I do try to avoid politics here. When the need has cropped up, I’ve focused more on refuting arguments than commenting on either party.

With that, and against my better judgment, I once again wade into the Republicans and science debate. Here’s David Roberts with some caveats to his accusation:

It’s true that Perry “hasn’t criticized the scientific method, or sent the Texas Rangers to chase out from the state anyone in a white lab coat.” But no one thinks Perry is opposed to science as such.

Well if Perry hasn’t criticized the scientific method and if he actually welcomes research and technology, what does it even mean to be anti-science? When even liberal stalwarts like David Roberts have to hedge their rhetoric and admit Republicans aren’t against science as such, it’s proof enough that the term is poorly thought out and shouldn’t be used.

Sloppy terminology aside, there does seem to be something here. According to Pew,two-thirds of Republicans either deny warming or attribute it to natural variation. Only 21% of the most conservative believe humans cause climate change. The corresponding numbers for Democrats are 33% and 74%.

It’s not really shocking so many people find these numbers concerning. The question is what exactly we should be concerned about. The anti-science crowd sees these poll results and infer that Republicans deny the evidence. That’s one possibility. Another is that they were not exposed to the evidence in the first place. A lack of exposure rather than outright hostility could also explain the outcome. It’s easy to reject climate science if Joe Bastardi is your only news source and you never hear about the IPCC. If Julian Sanchez’s “epistemic closure” thesis is true, Republicans’ don’t have an aversion to data per se. It’s that a closed information loop prevents contrary facts from ever surfacing at all.

These are two very different accounts for the same phenomenon and it’s the sort of debate I would love to see the blogosphere take up. Why exactly do Republicans reject climate science? I suspect it’s some combination of motivated reasoning, a general identification of this issue with Democrats in an era of increased partisanship, and epistemic closure. Even if anyone could ever define it, anti-science would add nothing. It’s unfortunate to see David Roberts use such a careless term when I know he understands these topics better than I do.

Unfortunate, but not surprising. By neglecting to acknowledge and respond to the fact that Republicans do deny global warming and it is a big deal, I’ve left the space open for those happy to use bad arguments for political gain (nothing wrong with that by the way!). Hopefully this post is a stab in the right direction.

So if you want to bash Republicans for rejecting climate science, and if you care about precise language, don’t call them anti-science. It might not have as nice of a ring to it, but epistemic closure is more coherent, better defined, and probably much closer to the truth.

Climate science as astronomy

September 14, 2011 1 comment

Here’s Matthew Bailes on climate science and astronomy:

It may come as a big surprise to many, but there is actually no difference between how science works in astronomy and climate change – or any other scientific discipline for that matter. We make observations, run simulations, test and propose hypotheses, and undergo peer review of our findings.

Other than the strange notion that all scientific disciplines run simulations (they do not), I get what Bailes is trying to do. If we somehow prove that there is “no difference” between climate science and astronomy, then surely we should equally trust their conclusions. If both climate scientists and astronomers undergo peer review and test their hypotheses, then there should be no need for opposition in either case.

This type of wishful thinking crops up all the time. But as Bailes himself admits, no one really cares that much about astrophysics discoveries. For better and for worse, climate science doesn’t share that fate. Whatever the epistemic similarities between the two (and I think Bailes was a bit careless there), the policy implications of climate science mean you can’t really equate them.

Categories: Climate Change

There is more to science than climate change

September 1, 2011 3 comments

I understand the Zack Beauchamps out there apply a national politics filter to almost everything they write. I get why they spend time on climate change and stem cells rather than space physics. I accept my thesis really wasn’t very interesting. But can we please stop pretending that science begins and ends with climate change? Can we stop equating a position on two or three hot-button issues with “science?” The U.S. spends some $400 billion on R&D every year. In 2006 over 1 million papers were published in 23,000-odd peer-reviewed journals. Are we going to reduce all of this to nothing more than the latest IPCC report?

I assure you I too want to stop global warming. But come on. Most research has absolutely nothing to do with politics at any scale. It cheapens the whole experience to brand me as pro or anti-science based on a single issue. It is possible to engage with and care about science without giving a damn about cap-and-trade.

You may not know this from reading the political blogosphere, but there is in fact more to science than climate change.

Politicians’ scientific beliefs, indicators, and cultural markers

September 1, 2011 3 comments

Liberal bloggers have been attacking National Review’s Kevin Williamson for arguing politicians’ scientific beliefs don’t matter:

Why would anybody ask a politician about his views on a scientific question? Nobody ever asks what Sarah Palin thinks about dark matter, or what John Boehner thinks about quantum entanglement. (For that matter, I’ve never heard Keith Ellison pressed for his views on evolution.) There are lots of good reasons not to wonder what Rick Perry thinks about scientific questions, foremost amongst them that there are probably fewer than 10,000 people in the United States whose views on disputed questions regarding evolution are worth consulting, and they are not politicians; they are scientists.

Let me narrow in on a specific type of claim made Chait, Drum, and Beauchamp, where they seem to use evolution and climate change (ECC) as a kind of indicator for Rick Perry’s decision-making and governance ability writ-large. Here’s Chait (emphasis added):

Likewise, Perry’s evolution skepticism signals a strong commitment to conservative values over the conclusions of data and experts. On a deeper level, he is demonstrating social solidarity with conservatives against the intellectual elites they resent. He probably won’t have to make a presidential decision on teaching evolution, but his answers to questions about it tell you a great deal about how he would govern.

This claim is rather strange. Many practicing scientists dispute evolution and climate change. These intellectual blind-spots don’t prevent them from designing circuits, writing Matlab code, solving differential equations, or analyzing datasets. (I’m thinking of specific people I know here.) If their stance on ECC doesn’t necessarily impact decision-making in other areas of science, how can it tell you anything useful outside of science?

It’s even stranger to use ECC when we have Rick Perry’s actual record as a governor, stated political views and publications to turn to. Surely these are much better governance indicators than passing comments on evolution. I see no need to use a bad indicator when better ones are easily available. Given that Chait et al. have themselves written extensively on Perry’s record, they shouldn’t have to reference either evolution or climate change.

I suspect that liberals view ECC the way conservatives view public displays of Christian piety. Both represent cultural markers as much as they do a policy agenda. And that’s okay with me. Political leaders are more than people who advance legislation we support. By that measure we know we will often be disappointed in the end anyway. When you see yourself losing on the substance, public affirmation of your values can become even more important. Liberals want to live in an America where everyone embraces evolution and climate change. Since that won’t happen anytime soon, at the very least they’ll make damned sure our President embraces them. Put another way, liberals want politicians who believe in ECC because, well, they want politicians who believe in ECC. I wish they’d just say that.

Blog dump

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Pretty busy this week with some applications, so I’ll leave you with a few links:

  1. Why we still pay for academic journals even though everything is now online. It’s mostly legacy (h/t Stephanie).
  2. Andy Revkin on scientism and climate communication. Revkin recaps the a couple sessions at the recent AAAS meeting, including the one that I organized. Thomas Lessl’s comments are particularly insightful.
  3. Yet more climate change communication, this time in Scientific American. In yet another display of shameless self-promotion, I’ll point out that this post also discusses the panel.

That’s it for now!