Climate Science v. Climate Activism: Only One Is Fact-Based

AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

There are a few things about science as a method that a lot of people don't understand. Science is not an encyclopedia; it's a tool, for looking at data, forming hypotheses, and conducting controlled experiments to see if the hypotheses are valid. Science is a tool for learning, and as such is exploratory, not explanatory.

Science is also tentative. It's fallible. The most long-held and precious scientific hypotheses are subject to being altered or overturned with the discovery of new information, just as Newtonian physics was amended by quantum physics. That's science. That's how it works — you observe first, then you draw your conclusions.

But climate scolds do just the opposite — they have their agenda, then look for information that supports it. That's not science. In fact, it's anti-science.

Ulf Büntgen is a Professor of Environmental Systems Analysis at the University of Cambridge, and he cautions us against letting activism drive policy.

While this Comment is not a critique of climate activism per se, I am foremost concerned by an increasing number of climate scientists becoming climate activists, because scholars should not have a priori interests in the outcome of their studies. Like in any academic case, the quest for objectivity must also account for all aspects of global climate change research. While I have no problem with scholars taking public positions on climate issues, I see potential conflicts when scholars use information selectively or over-attribute problems to anthropogenic warming, and thus politicise climate and environmental change. Without self-critique and a diversity of viewpoints, scientists will ultimately harm the credibility of their research and possibly cause a wider public, political and economic backlash.

Ay, that's the rub — when scholars, and anyone else for that matter, use information selectively. These are not potential conflicts, mind you, but actual ones and it's not just in climate activism but anywhere where public policy is being argued. As I've been saying for some time now, these arguments aren't about facts, they aren't about reason, and they aren't about principles; they're all about The Side. Principals, not principles, are what obtains.

Likewise, I am worried about activists who pretend to be scientists, as this can be a misleading form of instrumentalization. In fact, there is just a thin line between the use and misuse of scientific certainty and uncertainty, and there is evidence for strategic and selective communication of scientific information for climate action. (Non-)specialist activists often adopt scientific arguments as a source of moral legitimation for their movements, which can be radical and destructive rather than rational and constructive. Unrestricted faith in scientific knowledge is, however, problematic because science is neither entitled to absolute truth nor ethical authority.

Now Ulf Büntgen is concerned about anthropogenic climate change, the data for which I don't find convincing, but my own admittedly honest scientific background (biology, not climatology) does make me exercise caution when looking at sources and arriving at my own conclusions. I try not to believe what I read, regardless of source, and as much as possible, I check the data for myself. That's a skill I had to develop in my years as a quality systems analyst and it serves me well still, as a political pundit.

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It is correct, of course, that science is "neither entitled to absolute truth nor ethical authority." But the point I think Mr. Büntgen misses is this: The activists don't care about how the scientific method works or the tentative nature of science. They don't care to see any data that might overturn their preconceived notions. And that's the real problem, not just in climate matters but in almost every area of policy; too many people, most of our elected employees included, never seek to test their hypotheses — to challenge their already conceived notions.

I can't think of a more important intellectual skill. I don't understand how anyone can be firm in their opinions on anything unless they have challenged those opinions. That's why — painful as it can be at times — I listen to MSNBC now and then or read "Mother Jones" or "The Nation." It's not just to see what the other side is thinking — although that's a part of it — but to deliberately seek out notions contrary to my own, to read them and think about them. But most people, climate scolds among them, never do this, and now they have co-opted the word "science" to lend credibility to their notions that are undeserved.

Science should be neutral, but then, analysis of data for public policy should be neutral as well. Sadly, that's a ship that sailed long ago.


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