On Friday, I participated in a briefing on Capitol Hill on the use of science in policy debates. Other panelists were Don Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science magazine, Juliet Eilperin, environment reporter for the Washington Post, and David Goldston, formerly chief of staff of the House Science Committee and now a lecturer at Princeton.
In my presentation, I made two points that will not surprise long-time readers.
First, I argued that the scientific assessment process is the best way to determine what the scientific community thinks about a particular scientific issue.
The key to my argument is that credible scientific advice emerges from a credible process. Scientific results gain credibility by passing peer review, and then being re-tested and multiply verified by the scientific community. In that way, hypotheses are converted into “facts.” Scientific advice to policymakers gains credibility by relying on peer-reviewed analyses and then going through multiple levels of peer-review — as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports do.
As a result, the IPCC reports are gold-standard statements of what the scientific community knows about the climate and how confidently we know it.
The worst way to determine what the science tells us, as evidenced by Inhofe’s last stand, is a Congressional hearing. There is no guarantee that what the “scientists” at those hearings say is true. There’s no peer review of any statement, no fact checking — it’s a free-for-all. If you don’t believe me, take a look at some of the statements trotted out by David Deming and Bob Carter. They are just flat-out wrong.
Second, when it comes to policy debates, arguments about science are often part of a strategy to induce gridlock — what I’ve called the uncertainty agenda.
Arguing about science has several advantages for policymakers. First, it allows them to bury value judgments the general public would find unpalatable. For example, Joe Congressman might believe that the earth is better off with SUVs than polar bears, but he can’t argue that because it’s not a political winner. So instead, he argues that the science is unsound or fatally flawed.
Second, the general public finds it hard to separate bogus from legitimate scientific arguments, so arguments about science tend to induce paralysis. After all, if everyone is arguing about science, they’re not arguing about what policy to adopt. In this way, arguments about “uncertainty” can be used to legitimate the status quo.
Finally, I should give a shout out to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, who sponsored the event. Thanks!