Post-Enlightenment Science Policy or:

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Unhealthy Skepticism.

In the context of the federal budget debacle the Republican party is moving aggressively against the environmental regulation of commercial activities by intramurally debating how to legislatively restrict, defund, or even abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  It is simultaneously attempting to curtail a scientifically informed debate on climate change policy by both defunding climate change research and exploring how to personally intimidate climate scientists through the subpoena process.

These political moves reinforce one another: without a network of satellites making biogeochemical observations, the policy case for the regulation of carbon emissions is significantly weakened as the connection between climatological trends and particular phenomena (eg. blizzards, fires, droughts, hurricanes, etc.) of obvious relevance to the public good is left without an evidentiary defense.

And if the state lacks the ability to regulate carbon emissions, the argument for the public funding of climate research becomes that much weaker, as something as essential to public health as local environmental monitoring (arguably more so) is transformed into a drain on the public purse.  Climate change may be global, but it has local ramifications: North Dakota may monitor and regulate toxins in its waterways, but if global efforts to monitor and regulate carbon emissions do not develop, the Red River will become more prone to catastrophic flooding.

For climate data to appear as a public good, one must already accept that environmental regulations are necessary to social well-being. So this logic is particularly problematic:

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich called for replacing the Environmental Protection Agency with an “environmental solutions agency” as part of a broader re-assessment of American energy policy in his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference today in Washington.

In addition to this Orwellian re-branding, six Republican congressmen have written a letter (or at least signed one written by Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, et al.) specifically calling for a reallocation of NASA funds away from climate research and towards human spaceflight R&D (read: Lockheed Martin contracts). Their rhetoric is particularly brazen in light of the future risks of climate change:

We must not put ourselves in the position of watching Chinese astronauts planting their flag on the moon while we sit – earthbound by our own shortsightedness. Future generations of Americans deserve better.

While a federal science policy that defunds climate research represents a long-term security risk for many reasons, a particularly pernicious one is a positive feedback loop it could exacerbate within the policymaking process, in which elected politicians increasingly make claims contradicting the consensus findings of federal science agencies, which attempt to accurately depict the global climate with the public interest in mind.  While data is insufficiently persuasive on its own, it would be impossible to rebut the rhetoric Mo Brooks (R-AL) employs in this interview in Science without it:

Q: Is human activity causing global warming?
M.B.:
That’s a difficult question to answer because I’ve talked to scientists on both sides of the fence, especially at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Some say yes, and some say no. I’m also old enough to remember when the same left-wing part of our society was creating a global cooling scare in order to generate funds for their pet projects. So 30-some years ago, the big scare was global cooling, and once they drained the government, they shifted to global warming. So I’m approaching the issue with a healthy degree of skepticism. If the evidence is there to prove it, then so be it.

Q: What evidence would be convincing, in your mind?
M.B.:
I’m going to leave that up to the proponents. For right now, the fact that there may be some global warming doesn’t necessarily establish that it’s caused by humans. If you look at climatological data going back centuries or millennia, we have periods of cooling, like the Ice Age, and warming. So it’s cyclical. So how are the proponents going to convince us that it’s not just part of a cyclical pattern? After we hold hearings on this subject, I’ll know more. And we’re going to have public hearings on the topic.

Is a policymaker unwilling or unable to articulate evidence that would convince him of anthropogenic climate change seeking to hold an illuminating debate on the matter or an Inquisitive one?  Is a potential presidential candidate willing to replace the word “protection” with “solutions” interested in actually coming up with solutions, as his rhetoric is meant to imply in its Orwellian way, or simply in eliminating laws, bureaus, and agencies constraining private corporate interests?

More philosophically, how should we conceive of our (small r) republican duties as citizens and our research as academics in what I suggest is our developing post-enlightenment policy milieu?  It seems that inquiry into how these two roles are related would be a fruitful exploration for interdisciplinary research developing new models and metrics of academic social accountability.

 

 

This entry was posted in Accountability, Climate Change, Economics & STEM Research, Future of the University, Interdisciplinarity, NASA, NOAA, NSF, STEM Policy, Sustainability, Risk Management, & Long-Term Security, TechnoScience & Technoscientism, US Science Agencies. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Post-Enlightenment Science Policy or:

  1. Kelli Barr says:

    In light of reading the rest of Representative Brooks’, I’m thinking your last few questions are rhetorical. This section of the interview strikes me as particularly illuminating:

    Q: Leaving that aside, should the government take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
    M.B.: … I very much believe in controlling pollution so we have better air to breathe and better water to drink and the proper disposal of hazardous waste. And I like going to our national parks. I’m very much the outdoorsman.

    But having said that, with respect to carbon dioxide emissions, there’s some good associated with that, to the extent that we have higher levels of carbon dioxide. That means that plant life grows better, because it is an essential gas for all forms of plant life…

    But I haven’t seen anything that convinces me, keeping in mind I haven’t had any public hearings on the topic yet. I haven’t heard a bank of scientists going into the details of their methodologies that get beyond the fluff and that are something one needs to pay attention to, to formulate a sound opinion.

    Q: There have been lots of hearings over the years by Congress, including the science committee … .
    M.B.: But I haven’t been on those committees.

    Q: Where will you turn to get impartial advice on the subject?
    M.B.: Scientists who are both proponents and opponents.

    I’m dizzy…. someone had a nice, big helping of circular logic that morning! I’m curious to see what the unedited interview actually looked like; perhaps it was even more indicative of the Representative’s willful ignorance (cloaked as taking the intellectual/moral high ground, no doubt)?

    And also in light of recent work on the reactions of individuals to fact checking their opinions, I am less pleased to see these types getting elected, because it means that whenever their opinions are in opposition to bipartisan intellectual consensus, opinions always win.

    Maybe pop culture can give us some ideas? This seems like it might work well enough.

  2. Tom says:

    Such an interesting subject and so many opinions. The key factor always coming through is that there is no doubt that the world is warming, but is this down to to the actions of humans or is it just part of the worlds cycle? Although i agree in that the world does have a natural cycle and the atmosphere in our planet will naturally change, the vast amount of emissions that humans are causing in modern day life is so great it seems that is is bound to have some effect. I have read that in the USA 1000 tones of CO2 emissions are being produces every 5.3 seconds, and in China 1000 every 5.2 seconds. These figures are estonishing and are increasing. Admitidly i am no scienctist but it is hard to think that these vast amount of emissions do not have some effect on our planet. I found some of the information and stats quite interesting on this site so you may be interested in having a read: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070202085036.htm

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