Climate science and its discontents

Daniel Sarewitz has recently stirred commotion with an article in Slate that discusses the political affiliations of American scientists. Responding to a Gallup poll that points out a remarkable match between political ideology and belief that climate change is occurring, Sarewitz offers this point:

Does that mean that Democrats are more than twice as likely to accept and understand the scientific truth of the matter? And that Republicans are dominated by scientifically illiterate yahoos and corporate shills willing to sacrifice the planet for short-term economic and political gain? Or could it be that disagreements over climate change are essentially political—and that science is just carried along for the ride?

Rather than fueling the partisan fire, Sarewitz wishes to ameliorate the “climate science debacle” by prompting a dialogue on the nature of science as an institution that is simultaneously epistemological and political. This requires challenging the “most cherished” beliefs in a “pure science insulated from dirty partisanship.” As a human endeavor, no inquiry is wholly removed from the ideology of its practitioners, including science. Although I would argue that the issue of climate change itself is not essentially political, Sarewitz rightfully notes that getting scientists to engage in discussions about political diversity and the “political implications of science” is crucial for responsibly addressing issues requiring respect between our political and scientific institutions.

But recognizing the political dimension inherent within scientific institutions challenges scientific expertise. I worry that the sophistication of his argument may be lost on those who read it with a polarized eye – leading to the conclusion either that scientists should be further insulated against political debates, or that scientists are as much influenced by party affiliations as our nations’ representatives (and thus their professional judgment is meaningless).

In an age of degrading political discourse, context is lost on many who simply wish to prove an ideological point – even though what is at stake is not just the relationship between science and politics, but our collective future in light of the environmental, technological, and social issues that challenge the security and safety of the nation – and the world.

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