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Devaluing Science

Jonathan H. Adler

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The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science and Policy in Politics
Roger A. Pielke, Jr.
Cambridge, 2007, 188 pp.
$29.99 (cloth)

In 2001, Cambridge University Press published a book-length examination of environmental trends and other indicia of sustainability by a theretofore unknown Danish statistician. Bjørn Lomborg was a self-proclaimed environmentalist who had begun to doubt the litany of eco-pessimism. His book, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, ignited a firestorm of controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. Lomborg's supporters celebrated him for elucidating global environmental trends; his critics charged him with outright falsehoods and misrepresentation but failed to identify significant factual flaws in his book. The attacks on Lomborg's presentation of environmental data supplanted a serious policy debate on the wisdom (or lack thereof) of Lomborg's premises and prescriptions. His opponents attacked his political and ideological arguments using the language of science, just as Lomborg himself purported to engage in a value-neutral examination of environmental trends.

In his new book, The Honest Broker, University of Colorado political scientist Roger A. Pielke, Jr. worries that the debate over The Skeptical Environmentalist is emblematic of a "pathological" politicization of science in public policy today. What was framed as a debate over "sound science" was really a proxy battle over environmental policy, with most participants "focused on the advantages or disadvantages the book putatively lent to opposing political perspectives." For example, Scientific American published a series of broadsides against Lomborg under the heading "Science Defends Itself from The Skeptical Environmentalist"; that title would have been more accurate, Pielke observes, had it read "Our political perspective defends itself against the political agenda of The Skeptical Environmentalist" -- but then "it would have carried with it far less authority than masking politics with the cloth of science."

Pielke fears that when scientists and policymakers claim "science" supports a particular policy agenda, they diminish science's ability to inform policy development. Those who purport to make policy recommendations based on "sound science" or "objective information" are often engaged in issue advocacy from a certain point of view. Typically, it is policy advocates, ideologues, and flacks, not scientists, who politicize science in this way. In the debate over The Skeptical Environmentalist, however, scientists actively entered the fray, the direction of their arguments determined by ideology and political considerations rather than scientific examination. The end result was a political conflict, but one conducted in the language of science. Pielke worries it won't be the last.

Read the entire article on the New Atlantis website (new window will open).

Posted: 21-Sep-07

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