Logo IMG
HOME > PAST ISSUE > May-June 2006 > Article Detail


Liberating Science from Politics

The notion that science can be used to reconcile political disputes is fundamentally flawed

Daniel Sarewitz

State of the World

In the 2000 election, our political process did not turn to technical experts to come up with an answer. In contrast, when environmental problems become mired in politics, we often call on scientists to break the gridlock. This approach is backwards. In seeking to address our environmental challenges, we should instead (and regardless of our political preferences) look to the lessons of the Florida vote count.

My central point is that scientific inquiry is inherently unsuitable for helping to resolve political disputes. Even when a disagreement seems to be amenable to technical analysis, the nature of science itself usually acts to inflame rather than quench debate. One reason for this outcome is what I would term an "excess of objectivity." Science seeks to come to grips with the richness and complexity of nature through numerous disciplinary approaches, each of which gives factual, yet always incomplete, views of reality.

Consider climate change, which may variously be understood as a problem of climate impacts, biodiversity, land use, energy use, water use, agricultural productivity, public health, economic development, demographics and so forth. Each of these concerns involves a variety of interests and values, of potential winners and losers, and each depends on a body of relevant knowledge to help define, understand, anticipate and respond to the problem. The very wealth of reliable scientific information becomes an obstacle to achieving any type of shared understanding of what climate change "means." That is, the problem is not a lack of scientific input so much as the contrary—a huge and evolving body of knowledge with components that can be legitimately assembled and interpreted in different ways to yield competing views of the issue at hand.

This result does not arise from the selective use of facts by partisan players to support a particular position. There is no way to "add up" all the information relevant to a complex problem like climate change to give a "complete" picture of what is going on. So choices must be made, and choices involve values. When an issue is both politically and scientifically contentious, one can usually support one's point of view with an array of legitimate facts that seem no less compelling than the facts assembled by those with a different perspective. Subjectivity and objectivity, it turns out, are not separate and immiscible realms, but opposite sides of the same coin. For every value, there is often a legitimate supporting set of scientific results.

A second reason that science often makes things worse is that specific disciplinary lenses often turn out to be especially compatible with particular interests and values. My point is not that disciplines are ideologically monolithic. But it seems entirely reasonable to expect that the formal intellectual framework used by a scientist to understand some slice of the world may be related to the values that person holds.

The ongoing controversy over genetically modified organisms in agriculture provides a good example. Some disciplines, such as plant genetics, focus on the modification of plants for human benefit, whereas others, such as ecology, investigate the risks that transgenes might pose for ecosystems. These two perspectives, equally fact-based and legitimate, nevertheless reflect different ways of viewing nature (reductionist versus systemic) and provide a factual basis for competing political perspectives (optimism about the agricultural promise of genetically modified organisms versus concern about their environmental risks). Indeed, social-science research has shown that scientists' attitudes about risk (for instance, the dangers of nuclear waste) are tied to disciplinary expertise.

A final reason that more science often doesn't help has to do with the emergence of uncertainty. Again consider the 2000 election. There is no reason to think that the complexities that emerged in Florida are not commonly present in other elections as well. What made these issues important was the closeness of the count combined with the extremely high stakes of the election. In the parlance of scientific debate, the final vote count became shrouded in "uncertainty." Had one candidate or another achieved a decisive victory in Florida, these uncertainties would still have existed, but they wouldn't have mattered.

This observation provides a final key to understanding why science often makes environmental controversies worse. Rising political stakes catalyze scientific uncertainty. Science does not produce a unified picture of "the environment" on which all can agree. Instead, it provides multiple views, each of which may be valid from a particular disciplinary (or ideological) angle. This diversity of perspectives manifests as an absence of coherence and reliability in our scientific understanding at the system level. "More research" is often prescribed as the antidote, but new results quite often reveal previously unknown complexities, increasing the sense of uncertainty and highlighting the differences between competing perspectives.

comments powered by Disqus


Of Possible Interest

Letters to the Editors: The Truth about Models

Computing Science: Belles lettres Meets Big Data

Feature Article: Engines Powered by the Forces Between Atoms


Foreign-Language PDFs


Subscribe to American Scientist