People talk about the “politicization” of science all the time, usually in the form of an accusation designed to paint an opponent as biased or corrupt. Let’s take a moment to think about the term and what it means.

Science is a multi-layered, collective, and impersonal process consisting of three parts:

  1. individual scientists working under the scientific method,
  2. the results of the individual scientists undergo peer-review and are published for the community to evaluate, and
  3. important claims are then re-tested in the “crucible of science” — they are either reproduced by independent scientific groups or have their implications tested to insure consistency with the existing body of scientific knowledge.

In the end, claims repeatedly verified by the scientific community (e.g., the earth is warming, DNA is a double-helix, CFCs destroy ozone) come to be accepted as true.

Thus, someone is honestly using science if he or she articulates a position that is supported by the whole of the peer-reviewed literature (e.g., the earth is warming). Misrepresenting the peer-reviewed literature is my definition of politicizing science. That includes cherry-picking, dueling experts, or any of the myriad other methods of pushing faulty science.

A good example can be found in the last Inhofe hearing. There, Bob Carter pointed out that during the past few hundred thousand years, changes in temperature have preceded changes in carbon dioxide. Carter concluded that the relation between carbon dioxide and temperature is unclear.

This is hogwash, of course. While Carter is correct that temperature changes precede CO2 changes, this is well understood and in no way undermines the idea that increasing CO2 will lead to global warming. By presenting a misleading account of this physical phenomenon, Carter is acting to politicize science.

The best way to avoid cherry-picking and other methods of distortion is to stick with scientific assessments. Assessments on climate (by the IPCC) are written by teams of scientists and are designed to reflect the underlying peer-reviewed literature. The reports are then peer reviewed themselves by other scientists. In this way, they are as free of bias as any document can reasonably hope to be. In the end, they are the gold standard of what we know about the climate and how confidently we know it. To the extent that “truth” about climate exists anywhere, it exists here.