Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
What is a smörgåsbord? And who is Sarewitz? From the top, a smörgåsbord is “a buffet meal of various hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, salads, casserole dishes, meats, cheeses, etc.” and, as a derivation from that, can also be “an extensive array or variety (of something).” And Sarewitz? He is Daniel Sarewitz of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (CSPO) at Arizona State University. “a research unit of the Institute for the Future of Innovation in Society, [which] has once again been named one of the top ten think tanks in the world for science and technology policy in the latest edition of the University of Pennsylvania’s “Global Go To Think Tank Index.” [ here see Table 24 ].
Back in August 2016, Judith Curry covered one of his most-talked-about papers in Dan Sarewitz on Saving Science. Two years ago, almost to the day, I published an essay here Book Review: Climate Pragmatism covering one of the books published by the CSPO and the Breakthrough Institute in a series called “The Rightful Place of Science”. Dan Sarewitz is one of four co-authors.
Dan Sarewitz has been at it again — hitting hard and digging deep at the philosophical and practical interface between Science and Public Policy. [ It is at the interfaces of things that the real action takes place. — kh ] His
new paper [Marcel Crok has caught me out — the paper was only new to me — originally published in 2004 – this correction 11 July 2019] is titled:
How science makes environmental controversies worse
The key point, in his introduction, reads: [Note: direct quotes will be bold and italicized.]
“…scientific inquiry is inherently and unavoidably subject to becoming politicized in environmental controversies. I discuss three reasons for this. First, science supplies contesting parties with their own bodies of relevant, legitimated facts about nature, chosen in part because they help make sense of, and are made sensible by, particular interests and normative frameworks. Second, competing disciplinary approaches to understanding the scientific bases of an environmental controversy may be causally tied to competing value-based political or ethical positions. …. third, it follows from the foregoing that scientific uncertainty, which so often occupies a central place in environmental controversies, can be understood not as a lack of scientific understanding but as the lack of coherence among competing scientific understandings, amplified by the various political, cultural, and institutional contexts within which science is carried out.”
When I read Sarewitz saying “value-based political or ethical positions”, I substitute the more easily understood phrase (by me…) “world-view”, which could comprise many things such as personal and/or religious morals, ideas of the purpose and value of human life, views concerning the proper relationships between humans and the rest of the natural world (and Universe, if you will).
In its 19-journal-pages, “This paper thus confronts a well-known empirical problem. In areas as diverse as climate change, nuclear waste disposal, endangered species and biodiversity, forest management, air and water pollution, and agricultural biotechnology, the growth of considerable bodies of scientific knowledge, created especially to resolve political dispute and enable effective decision making, has often been accompanied instead by growing political controversy and gridlock. Science typically lies at the center of the debate, where those who advocate some line of action are likely to claim a scientific justification for their position, while those opposing the action will either invoke scientific uncertainty or competing scientific results to support their opposition.”
There is so much really great thought in this paper that even just the few quotes I hoped to highlight will make this essay too long for most people to read easily. I will give you one more and make a summary of my own, along with the whole-hearted recommendation that serious readers download and read the original in its entirety.
Consider climate change, which may variously be understood as a “problem” of climate impacts, weather impacts, biodiversity, land use, energy production and consumption, agricultural productivity, public health, economic development patterns, material wealth, demographic patterns, etc. Each of these ways of looking at the problem of climate change involves a variety of interests and values, and each may call on a body of relevant knowledge to help understand and respond to the problem.
Not only may the interests, values, and knowledge relevant to one way of understanding the problem be, in small part or large, different from those associated with another way, but they may also be contradictory. Conversely, those holding different value perspectives may see in the huge and diverse body of scientific information relevant to climate change different facts, theories, and hypothesis relevant to and consistent with their own normative frameworks.
This condition may be termed an “excess of objectivity,” because the obstacle to achieving any type of shared scientific understanding of what climate change (or any other complex environmental problem) “means,” and thus what it may imply for human action, is not a lack of scientific knowledge so much as the contrary — a huge body of knowledge whose components can be legitimately assembled and interpreted in different ways to yield competing views of the “problem” and of how society should respond.
Put simply, for a given value-based position in an environmental controversy, it is often possible to compile a supporting set of scientifically legitimated facts.”
Sarewitz tells us that in our relationship with any complicated, complex natural system, the application of additional Science (more studies, more papers, more more…) can simply create a Scientific Smörgåsbord — a table of knowledge on which one can find enough (and more again) legitimate scientific information to support any reasonable viewpoint as to the nature of and the solution to a controversial environmental problem. Placing additional more complex, more narrowly-focused data on the table does not necessarily improve the feast — all can already come away full and satisfied.
I hinted at this idea in my Climate Etc. essay “What’s wrong with ‘alternative facts’?” and my own views on Climate Science (expressed in two essays here at WUWT, here and here), which, though thoroughly contrarian, are based [almost] entirely on data direct from the IPCC, NOAA and NASA. — Sarewitz correctly builds a case as to how and why such a thing can be — the Climate Team and I look at the same body of data, and both sides draw legitimate but contrary conclusions.
The key point:
More Science in Environmental Controversies can just produce:
In the words of Sarewitz:
“…a huge body of knowledge whose components can be legitimately assembled and interpreted in different ways to yield competing views of the “problem” and of how society should respond.”
In my words:
“… legitimate but contrary conclusions.”
Welcome to the Climate Science Smörgåsbord!
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Author’s Comment Policy:
I have not tried to give readers a thorough review of the Sarewitz paper, which is available in a free full .pdf file from the CSPO. I really am just hoping to tempt you into downloading and reading the paper, which I think is tremendously important for those hoping to understand the many Modern Science Controversies including the swirling madness surrounding the Climate Question.
From the quotes above, it should obvious that the paper is not for those with only a casual interest — it is a bit of a tough slog. My editor, a Phi Beta Kappa English major from an Ivy League university (from back when that meant something academically), was driven nearly into a coma listening to me read Sarewitz to her. Nonetheless, the paper is well worth the effort to read — take your time with it.
Those readers with cast-in-cement views about things climate will benefit from the paper as well as those whose thinking is still flexible enough to allow other viewpoints to be legitimate.
Readers here at Anthony Watts’ Watts Up With That are intentionally given an all-you-can-eat free pass to the Climate Science Smorgasbord. Enjoy it while you can.
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