Monday, March 27, 2006

Science & Politics

This week's Time magazine cover story deals with the sensitive issue of global warming. This issue highlights the ever-present and thorny issue of the overlap between science and politics. In recent months, a NASA employee has accused NASA of intimidation, scientists have declared that the Bush Administration distorts science, politicians have stated that the destruction of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina was unforseeable, while scientists point that such warnings have been made for years, and on, and on, and on.

We scientists like to think of ourselves as Joe Friday, "just the facts" types, while many conservatives claim that scientists are political creatures at heart.

The truth is in between those two extremes. The vast majority of scientists are strongly driven in their research by a desire to determine the facts of science. But, like everybody, we have our own opinions, and it is true that many scientists (at least at universities) have a liberal political bent (but this is not true of every scientist -- I know of many strong conservatives among my colleagues). The trick is teasing apart facts from opinion. And this is hard!

For example, in the global warming debate, it is indisputable that, over the last couple of centuries, the average temperature of the Earth has been increasing. It is also indisputable that the atmospheric concentrations of "greenhouse gases" are increasing. And the vast majority of scientists (including myself) believe that these two are linked, though this is not proven. The burden of proof in science is steep and would likely require many more decades of research -- but do we want to wait that long?

In global warming, the politics starts to creep in as we go beyond these points. What will the effects of global warming be? The atmosphere and weather are complex (do you trust the weather forecast for ten days from now? I don't...). Many scientists claim the polar ice caps will melt completely, some claim that they will grow and start a new ice age, and some claim both will happen. Will Europe have record warm temperatures or record cold temperatures? Will the western U.S. have drought or record rain? Scientists argue about each of these, as well as many more points.

BUT a point that the public and politicians on both sides of the aisle often fail to see is that all of these arguments are not about the reality of global warming, and all of these possibilities will greatly affect humans across the globe. And this is why so many scientists vocally support reducing greenhouse gas emissions, stopping the deforestation of the Amazon, and other such "environmentalist" views.

So the next time you hear politicians talking about science, or scientists speaking politics, stop and think critically about what you hear. What is hard science and what is personal opinion?

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