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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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Political action and the miseducation of scientists

October 19, 2011 1 comment

From David Roberts:

You’ll be shocked to hear that Socolow, who spends his life in a world of ideas and explanations, concludes that the answer is better ideas and explanations…I don’t think [David Victor] has ever said anything more on the money than this:

The community of policy advocates—especially folks drawn from academic science and engineering—is shockingly naïve about politics and the strategy of political action.

Looking at how climate advocacy has played out, I wonder if we should partly blame this naivety on the miseducation of scientists. Grad students are consumed with technical coursework, research, and more research. The rock-stars who continue the lifestyle have it even worse before they get tenure. It’s not too surprising some of them lose perspective. Telling these people that their science and worldview may not help move policy–especially since that’s what made us to care about the issue in the first place–is not an easy sell.

Now I shouldn’t generalize too much because many scientists do recognize their limits. But Socolow’s faith in the power of knowledge does seem pervasive in the academy. Those of us who end up realizing that that ideas and explanations rarely matter, and that there is more to life than research are often the ones that end up leaving. The remaining stay in academia and become academics.

There’s no way to tell what would have happened if Socolow et al knew more political science, or what would have changed if political agitation rather than communication had been the chosen approach. But at the very least they would have better understood the challenge in front of them. Going forward, I hope we can finally follow through on the National Academies’ 16-year old call for more versatile scientists and engineers. Someone has to has to figure out how to hammer into budding scientists that politics doesn’t work how they want it to.

For starters, we can stop telling them their research is the most important thing in the world. Scientists don’t need more praise because, trust me, they praise themselves enough. They need to hear the exact opposite: Neither you nor your research are that are that special, it’s mostly useless outside the ivory towers, and human progress depends on a hell of a lot more than knowledge. If you want to change something, you have to fight for it like everyone else.

Categories: Academia, Politicization

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.

Misplaced obsession with ranking anti-science behavior

September 22, 2011 2 comments

Chris Mooney got a bit upset when Alan Berezow claimed “for every anti-science Republican that exists, there is at least one anti-science Democrat”:

This is a truly mind-boggling statement. What is this numerical claim based on? I can give you polling data on Tea Party followers, for instance, who reject evolution and climate change in dramatic numbers. I’d love to see similar data on a scientific topic where liberals reject a widely accepted scientific fact in similar numbers, and do so for clear political reasons.

Both Berezow and Mooney display this bizarre obsession with ranking anti-science behavior. As if once we decide that Republicans politicize science more or less than Democrats there’s nothing more to discuss. As if scoring political points is all that matters. As if once we hear science, Republicans and Democrats in the same sentence, the only thing left to do is pass judgment on someone. But as others have ably observed, there is more to science and politics than a simple ranking.

I’m consistently disappointed Mooney rarely deploys his rhetorical prowess and authority in the science blogosphere to move us beyond this simplistic discussion. We get it–he thinks Republicans politicize science more than Democrats. And yes, he even has some fancy statistics in support.

But surely it’s important to note that the term anti-science is semantically and epistemologically problematic, and so we should use it carefully. That for many people science isn’t a deciding factor either way issue, and so branding them is inappropriate.

This piece is especially unfortunate since a couple of his recent posts suggested Mooney was finally moving in this direction. I guess it’s one step forward, one step back.

Categories: Politicization

The futility of improving democratic discourse

January 8, 2011 1 comment

I’ve spent a lot of time with my head in the 19th century, and one thing that is immediately clear is that real argument has not replaced vicious name-calling, if only because viscous name-calling has generally been the order of the day in American politics, and perhaps in democracies the world-over. —Ta-Nehisi Coates

To vicious name-calling I would add cherry-picking and politicizing science, which also also appear to be permanent features of democracies the world-over.  In my more idealistic moments (and I have many of them), I like to think that scientists can help improve public discourse by isolating the facts and letting politicians fight over politics.  But in practice, we are ourselves often guilty of the distortions and exaggerations we decry in others.  A careful reading of the evidence does not, after all, support the unbridled self-celebration of either science or research.  It’s not surprising that professional politicians behave similarly.

None of this means we shouldn’t try to make better use of science in politics.  It does mean, however, we should acknowledge that name-calling and cherry-picking may be inevitable.  And thus any improvements will probably be small and only at the margins.  As unsatisfying as this outcome is, it’s price we pay for living in a democracy.

Science and politics

October 15, 2010 2 comments

Via Roger, Nature has an interesting article on the the apparent muzzling of government scientists at various agencies.  Some of the stories are a bit troubling, for for me the key sentence comes at the end of this paragraph:

Lane is concerned about the effect of these restrictions on scientists and their work. “It kills morale,” he says. “It makes scientists feel like their work is not valued, and it makes it harder for agencies to recruit and retain the best scientists.” Keeping information from the public could put the credibility of the agency at risk, and some scientists say it affects their careers. “The restrictions limit my overall stature in the research community,” says an ARS scientist who asked to remain anonymous.

Not everyone feels this strongly. Some ARS scientists say that the agency’s internal review process for their research papers is appropriate, and is just part of working for the government.

I suspect part of the problem (as alluded to in the article) is that scientists working in government simply don’t operate under the same rules as, say, academia.  Conflict and disagreement will inevitably happen until rules are clarified.  I’d like to know how many scientists, exactly, feel muzzled, and how widespread is this feeling? What exactly does it mean that “some scientists” feel the restrictions are appropriate? Some people will always have problems with the rules, and I need a bit more context to evaluate these claims.

I also think it’s mildly funny that alleged restrictions is what’s harming the scientist’s stature in the research community.  I’d have thought that leaving academia in the first place is what screws your status whether or not there are restrictions.

Categories: Politicization

Science and politics

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

The always insightful Ta-Nehisi Coates criticized Adrian Fenty for sloppy campaigning in his recent loss in the DC Democratic primary (emphasis added):

I think when you’re in a pitched battle over something you care deeply about, it’s often tough to remember that it isn’t enough to be visionary, perceptive, or prophetic. Leadership, in a democracy, isn’t simply a matter of identifying solutions. You also have to convince a critical mass of people to either trust you, or at least trust your solution.

Having not lived in the District in some years I could well be getting this wrong, but those two quotes, and yesterday’s reporting in the Post, paint a picture of an administration that believed being right was good enough.

And later on:

We can all agree on the substance of that statement–eight percent of eighth graders doing math at grade level is criminal. I suspect that many of the people who voted Fenty out would also agree. But Michelle Rhee isn’t merely in public education–she’s in politics. Presumably, she understands this as she was out, last week, doing political work for Fenty. In that context, the implicit reasoning here–that being politically deft necessarily equals sugar-coating–is rather amazing. In a democracy, persuasion is a necessary aspect of politics. Large-scale reform certainly complicates persuasion, but the two aren’t antithetical…
…That is an essential part of politics–not alienating your allies, and converting would-be enemies, all while pushing the right solutions.
I’m wondering how much this message can be applied to science.  It’s true that some of our campaigns are also an exercise in politics, and global warming comes to mind.  It’s clearly not not so much about getting facts right as it is about persuasion. We’ve also known for a very long time that many Americans are scientifically uninformed, and anti-regulatory sentiments aren’t new.  We should have been aware of this landscape and navigated it accordingly.  That said, scientists aren’t politicians and it’s understandable–and desirable–we don’t act as such.